And with this installment, we make a turn and begin to accelerate toward the end. While it depends on various things, I expect the story to be done in four or five more installments.
After lunch, everyone went to prepare for the evening festivities, which quickly came to fruition. It was much like the feast on Disan's previous visit, but vastly larger, with musicians, singers, dancers, jugglers, tumblers, and more, punctuated by gift-givings and seven courses of two dozen dishes each, many of the major dishes being quite exotic and rare even by the standards of the Great Realm: grilled silkworm, stuffed swan, roasted peacock, pickled swallow, octopus, embryo of duck, curried crocodile, head of ox, shark steaks, filleted porpoise, candied lemons, stewed fruits flavored with ambergris or musk or labdanum, and more. The feasting went on well into the night, and Disan was so tired when he went to sleep that he did not wake until morning, skipping the night hours between first sleep and second sleep.
The event planned for the morning was a great tournament; Disan pleaded indisposition and stayed in his rooms in the Dracontine Palace. He was not really sick, but, remembering his last visit, thought that he might well become so if he went. Instead, he studied the various proposals on the agenda and sketched out plans for trade agreements; this put him in good stead in the afternoon, when such issues were discussed. The meeting broke up in the early evening and all the royal delegations had the evening to themselves; as he expected, a steward came to guide him to the High King, who was sitting on a bench beside a fountain in a small deserted hall outside of both the Khalkythra and Dracontine Palaces. Antaran dismissed the servant and gestured for Disan to sit by him.
"My friend," he said. "At last we can talk. Elea will be here soon. How are you finding the Great Council so far?"
"Excellent," said Disan. "I was expecting more discussion of your plans, though."
"Ah," said Antaran wistfully. "I wanted that, too, but it soon became clear that the timing would not quite work out. The Andran failure set us back months, and there have been other things. In the end, it seemed best to have the Great Council early and use it for preparation rather than consummation. You may have noticed the proposals for expanding foreign trade and building more repair stations abroad for ships. Only a first framework rather than substance, but one works as well as one can with what one has. Still, one step forward is still forward, as they say. Oh, and I did want to ask you something. Based on your experience fighting the tribes, what, in terms of rough estimate, do you think we would need in place to seize the entire territory of the enemies of our Chipou allies, should we need to do so."
"To be honest," said Disan, "I do not think we could."
Antaran looked at him blankly with his eyes of Talan golden-amber. "What do you mean by that? You did well enough before. And surely we could seize their harbors and march inward."
"All we did in the Chipou expedition was assist the Chipou tribes. There is indeed no power in the world that can hold a harbor or port if we decide to seize it, and no power in the world that could seize it back if we decided to hold it. But the interior is always a different question. Perhaps we could have some limited success if we could sail up a navigable river and take interior river ports as well. But we do not even have the kind of army that would be required to occupy a significant amount of territory. And we would not be as familiar with the land as our foes, or with the kind of warfare suitable for it. In fighting alongside the Chipou, we had every advantage of armor and weaponry over everyone else, and this did give us a durability over many engagements that the other forces lacked; but in any particular engagement, we were not significantly better off than either our allies or our foes."
"Interesting," the High King thoughtfully said. He opened his mouth to say something else, but at that moment the golden-haired, blue-eyed Elea came into the room.
"I see that you have already started without me," she said sweetly.
"Only just barely." Antaran rose with something like a bounce in his step, and looked at Disan, who also rose. "Tonight, my friend, we advance a further step. There are secrets that Elea and I have had to bear alone, but tonight we will begin to be three, not two. We have something of extraordinary importance to show you."
They led him through a side door in the hall, through a passageway to another door, then across a hall to another door, which went to yet another passageway, which ended at yet another door. This door was an old one, made of solid orikhalh, and it had the semblance of life. Antaran put his hand upon it.
"Do you uphold the pacts and the covenants?" he said.
"I uphold them, O High King."
"Then open for me."
"For you alone do I open," replied the door, and soundlessly swung open to reveal a dark, narrow staircase leading down. Antaran went down, followed Elea and then Disan, the door softly swinging shut behind the three, and as they went, torches on the wall lit ahead of them and then glimmered out behind them, for they were a kind of torch made in the Great Realm that no one else has ever learned how to make.
As they entered the room at the bottom, braziers along the wall sprang to life and light, so suddenly that Disan's eyes were dazzled a moment. It was treasure vault, rectangular and not very large. Various chests and cabinets were found throughout. But most strikingly, there was a monolith taking up the entire center of the room. It looked of granite, rough-hewn, and it shimmered strangely in the light.
"Here he is," said Antaran.
Then a voice, very mellifluous and rich and kindly, but muffled as if it were coming through a great distance and slightly distorted as if it came around a corner from a passage, said, or rather, seemed to say, Welcome, O Disan, king of Sorea, son of Rezan, son of Belan, in right line from Soran. I have waited long to meet you, but my friends were slow to make the acquaintance.
Disan looked for who could have said this, in vain, as Antaran grinned at his confusion. Disan walked around the monolith to see if he had missed seeing something in the room, but as he did so he noticed something strange about the monolith itself, and the play of light upon it from the brazier-fires. There was, almost as if it were the trick of the light, something like a human shape, or a suggestion of a human shape. It could not be seen directly in the rock, which seemed quite normal, but if you looked past it, or with your peripheral vision, or if you moved your point of view, you could see the suggestion of a human shape in it, hard to make out in the way that a fish is hard to make out when it is just at the edge of sight in the water.
"You are in the stone," he said.
You are swift in ascertainment, said the voice, and it did indeed seem to come from, or rather through, the monolith. I am not exactly in the stone, but it is like a window through which I am peeking.
"You are something from the Court of Night."
I am much older than the Court of Night, said the voice gently and pleasantly. But the monolith was taken by Talan forces from the Court of Night, yes. I was there many long centuries, teaching them wonders and giving them the means to become great in the world. But they were cruel and would not let me step through this barrier; they used me but would not aid me. I am glad to find myself again among friends.
"This is the greatest of all secrets, Disan," said Antaran. "We are at the beginning of new things."
We are, indeed, said the voice from the monolith. The people of the Great Realm may now begin to free themselves from tutelage under the Powers, and become Powers themselves. The children shall become adult; the beasts of burden shall rise up to live for themselves; no longer will you need to bow down.
"The Powers and the forces they brought together destroyed the Court of Night, and having you did not help them," said Disan.
Again, said the voice in a kindly fashion, the Court of Night was limited by its own cruelty; they could not draw on my full help, because they would not open the door for me to help them. And yet because of the lore they learned from me, they outlasted the Court of Day, and it took many centuries for the Powers to build up what they needed to assault the Court of Night. Had the Court had my further assistance, a different story would be told. But I do not complain; because of it, I am freed of their cruelty and come to a wiser land.
"And what help do you offer us?"
To your people, glory and splendor. The Powers were miserly with what they gave you. They gave to your kind only the Gifts of Fire, and to your peoples in particular the minor trinkets that you call 'the pacts and the covenants', which are merely dim echoes of much greater Gifts. When they came to your kind, huddled in caves, scarcely more civilized than the beasts, and they taught you Fire, you adored them, and that was their purpose. When they gave to some of your kind this land and gave you dim and distorted bits of other Gifts, you adored them, and they bound you by the Orikhalh Tablets, chains of flawless metal, which you bear still today. I wish allies, not slaves. I will give you freedom and the Gifts of Water and of Wind, of Wood and of Metal. Now you control these things by Fire, both physical and spiritual; but what might you accomplish when you can not only subjugate metal with fire but wield the very nature of Metal itself? You rule the sea by the Fire within you; what shall you accomplish when you are kin with it as you are now kin with Fire? I will give you Gifts yet greater; I will spill out the treasuries the Powers hoard away from you, the Gifts of Light, of Space, of Time, of Death. Now you are limited in knowledge, by place, by moment, by lifespan. I will give you the freedom your kind has always sought from these cruel limitations. The Court of Night grew powerful beyond imagination on the fragments that they extorted from me. I will give them all to you, whole and entire, and freely.
As the voice spoke, it was as if great visions rose before the imagination, slowly at first and then more quickly. Like the figure in the stone, they were not clear, almost suggestions of visions more than visions themselves, suggestions of extraordinary things. Disan shook his head to clear it. "For what?" he asked.
I am not done answering your previous question, O king. You asked what help I offered, and I have said what I offer your people. But I have much to offer you, as well. Even through this door, this dark stone window, I can see something of your future, dark and tangled. What the Powers plan for you will destroy what you love. They have no concern for human life. As they see things, you are tools to be used. I will free you yourself from such limitations, the chains they place on your own shoulders. I will give you the power you need to protect the things you love from them. I know that you have brushed against them. You know that they are miserly in what they give. They are not your friends.
"Perhaps," said Disan. "But I still would like to know what you expect from us."
Only what my friends here have already begun to give, said the voice. They have only to continue, and I will give them everything. You have only to help them, and I will give you everything.
"When my father was dying," said Antaran, "he brought me here. At that time, you could only hear the voice when you touched the stone. But Elea and I have followed the instructions provided by our friend here, and now he can speak more freely. From him, we have already learned much. We know, for instance, that the Powers came to you when you were abroad; he sensed it when last you were here."
"It would help us greatly," said Elea, "if you will tell us what they said to you."
"They said that judgment would come upon us and that I should keep my eyes and ears open."
You speak honestly, said the voice. I can read it in you. I thank you for your good faith. It is a good beginning, And so, my friends, we see my fears confirmed by the very Powers themselves. They intend you harm. Do not dally. Finish the rites I have proposed to you as swiftly as you can, so that you will not have to face them without an ally.
"What are these rites?" asked Disan. But the monolith gave no answer.
"He comes and goes," said Antaran, and he and Elea began to go back up the staircase, with Disan following. The fires in the braziers went out as soon as Disan's foot left the floor, and their ascent was lit by torches ahead suddenly glowing and then fading as they passed them.
"Do not worry about the rites," said Elea. "We have those covered. We need the ships. And we need you to tell us if the Powers speak to you again."
After they were back in the passageway and the orikhalh door closed softly and firmly behind them, Disan said quietly. "How do you know that anything this stone-creature says can be trusted?"
"Everything he has ever said has been found true," said Antaran, "going all the way back to when my grandfather brought him from the War of Night. From him we have learned many things about the Court of Night, including the use of some of the treasures brought back from it that were otherwise very mysterious. And he is right, you know, for reasons that we talked about last time you were here. We are stagnating."
"We have no more avenues of greatness," said Elea. "We need something new. And we cannot do that as things are, with the limitations that have been forced upon us."
"We need new shores," said Antaran. "New lands, new frontiers of thought and deed, new powers."
They walked along quietly for a few minutes. Then Antaran said, as if relieving himself of a heavy burden. "I must apologize to you, Disan. I wanted to bring you in much earlier, and he was willing, but when you were last here, he told us that there were signs in your destiny that you had somehow been in communication with the Powers, and we hesitated." Here he shot Elea an angry look, which she ignored. "This meeting should have occurred last time. But when it was clear that you were cooperating with the ships, and the preliminary reports have been excellent, and now it has been done"
"Yes," Disan said slowly. "The ships are coming along well."
"Do you think you can have the first fleet for delivery by midsummer?"
"Easily," said Disan, still slowly. "We are currently testing many of them to ensure that they were built properly. And most of what has slowed us down so far has been the need to expand shipyard capabilities, which we now have mostly done."
Antaran put his fists in front of his chest and shook them slightly in excitement. "That is wonderful. And you have no idea how wonderful it is to have another conspirator in our little conspiracy of greatness. We three will change the world."
"It is very much in need of change," said Elea.
"It is, indeed," said Antaran. He clasped Disan's shoulder as they entered the hall at which they began. "We will leave you to think things over. Being in that room with that voice is sometimes a little overwhelming." He went to the door and called in the steward to guide Disan back to his rooms in the Dracontine Palace.
Disan followed his guide, scarcely paying attention to anything that passed. The suggestions of visions that had arisen with voice had not ceased with it; they hovered at the edge of the imagination. And the feeling of it was most peculiar. It was as if the imagination itself was sizzling and popping with half-formed ideas in dizzying multitude and variety, things it had never dared think before, thinks that were exciting to think, or would be if you could just catch them long enough to take full shape. And it came with a sort of exhilaration, like one might feel on the verge of a great reward.
But on the other side, a worry nagged, and Disan kept finding himself circling back to one question: Why had the Court of Night kept it sealed away in stone? And it tangled with another worry, which arose when he considered that he still did not know what the monolith-voice was actually demanding.
These two struggled and tangled in Disan's head, and their conflict left him feeling drained. When he reached his room, he fell into his bed almost immediately, and was asleep at once.