Wednesday, November 03, 2021

Abyss & Sea 9


The manor where the Visitation Court was residing was about a three-hour ride from the small port town of Mir Salal, located on a small but very navigable harbor across the channel from the main Sorean isle. It mostly served as a home port for fishermen and a base for some domestic trade in the kingdom, mostly in timber, although it was also one of only two places in the world (the other being the main isle itself) that was home to the Sorean snail, the source of the empress of all dyes, deep, shimmering, subtly iridescent Sorean black. It was also a popular location for wealthy sailors and shipwrights to retire from sea and yard in their old age, which was more the point of Baia's interest in it. As the Court settled in, Baia decided that she might as well do her visit then rather than later, and headed out with a small guard one morning to see her father.

Esten had been born in Mir Salal; he had shown a talent as a youth in the repair yards which eventually took him to Soromir, where over long years he had risen to become the Master Shipwright of Sorea; but he had always returned, regardless of his fortunes, to Mir Salal. In truth, Baia was looking forward to seeing her father again, although she was dreading The Question, as she thought of it, and when she saw him she felt her whole spirit lifting.

"Ah," he said after they embraced, at which she knew that The Question was coming, "and can I expect any grandchildren soon?"

Baia, having steeled herself to the occasion, shook her head and said, "You will be the first to know, I assure you."

"Well," he said in that tone of not quite judging and not quite approving that some parents master in their old age, "You are young yet. But it would be nice to see grandchildren before I die."

"I would not be at all surprised if you outlasted me," she replied.

He shushed her. "Do not say such ill-omened things. You should not talk about death in public"

"It was you who brought the topic up ," she said with some exasperation.

"And I am an old man. Why do I need to worry about omens? Come, come, let us have lunch!"

They chatted with gossip and small talk as her father's cook served the meal. It took her back to her childhood, as it was one of her favorite foods, although one she rarely had anymore. Soromir was a splendid city, but Mir Salal, being less cosmopolitan, preserved more of the traditional Sorean dishes, among which was fermented sea bass eaten raw, sometimes, as today, with toasted bread spread with a spiced tomalley of shore crab. Such dishes were, of course, the reason that people in Ezrym or Tala joked that the Soreans ate 'rotting, stinking fish', but, properly prepared by being fermented for three years in salt and vinegar according to the traditional method, its deep salt taste sparkled on the Sorean tongue. After their lunch they drank wolfberry tea and turned to more serious discussion.

"I have heard a few things of this Andran fleet that you mention," Esten said. "Strange rumors. A few of the young people here have been enticed away to the Golden Shores. After all, you cannot suddenly start building many ships without the craftsmen to do so. But the details that we hear are very vague and conflicting, and I suspect deliberately obfuscated precisely for us. The money is said to be good, but that, of course, is the Andran way; never develop yourself if you can buy it or steal it from elsewhere." Baia nodded neutrally at this widely shared anti-Andran prejudice. Her father continued. "And there have been strange rumors, as well. A friend of mine stopped by a few weeks back with story about Andran ships sinking in a storm."

"Surely that cannot be right," said Baia. "Andran ships are unsinkable."

"I know it well," said Esten, spreading his hands, "for they stole the secret from us by bribery several generations ago. And yet that was the story." He grew reflective. "It is interesting to try to think of the conditions under which an unsinkable ship would actually sink. Watertight, immune to fire, stable even in severe storm, able to endure hitting a shoal, what could possibly sink one? The sky would have to fall on it. Of course, it is true that they are Andran and so likely cut corners somewhere," he said in a kind of concession, as if Baia herself had raised the point.

They had a few moments of reverie, then Esten said again, "I could understand an Andran being so incompetent as to run a ship aground. How would you sink the unsinkable, though?"

"Probably nothing more than the exaggeration of rumor," said Baia.

"I can hardly believe that, either," said Esten. "Nobody would start a rumor that I hopped to the moon, and if they did, nobody would spread it. And yet here we have a story as completely inexplicable. There must be some reason that people started believing it; exaggerations in rumors never reach the point of insanity. And it is true," he said, again concessively,  "that if any captain could take an unsinkable ship and accidentally sink it, it would be an Andran captain."

Wanting to prevent the discussion from ripening, as it threatened to do, into yet another fruition of the age-old Andran-Sorean rivalry at sea, Baia asked what her father knew about Tavra and its ruling house.

"Not much directly," he said. "I've only been up the Great Canal a few times as part of test runs. Talking about strange rumors! The whole family is surrounded by them. Canthan, I suppose, is still king, although even in my day he was as crazy as if he slept in a bed of mercury. He really liked exotic animals, and would pay astoundingly high amounts for new animals that he had never seen before. I knew a man who had caught an air-serpent once, and selling it to Canthan made him wealthy in and of itself. Last I heard, it was Canthan's daughter who was really pulling all the strings. What was her name?" he asked reflectively.


"Yes, that was it. Some strange things were said about her. Tavern-room talk, mostly, at third- and fourth-hand. I was talking to someone just last year, I forget whom, who claimed she had the power to warp the minds of men."

"Warp the minds of men?"

"Yes, make them do what she wanted. Of course, Canthan in his younger days also had a reputation for being able to persuade people, so perhaps it runs in the family. But he also talked about someone he knew who had angered her, and she somehow drove him mad. Many things like that. She is a young woman yet; it is difficult to imagine what she could ever have done that would give birth to such dark tales. Nobody ever said such things about Canthan. Of course, Canthan was always mad himself, and has apparently only grown worse over time."

"The Tavrans do a good trade in honey and mead," said Baia.

"Of course. Other things, too -- silphium-resin and edible flowers like pansies and nasturtiums and borage and cornflowers always fetch a good price, either fresh or candied."

"Have you ever heard of anyone being poisoned by honey?"

"No," said Esten. Then he paused. "Well, maybe. Now that you mention, I do remember a story about the training of royal guards in Tavra. It is apparently a brutal training, and I remember something about some new recruits being given a honey-ration with their meal, but the bees had been gathering from poppy and oleander -- or maybe it was rhododendron -- and all the guards had hallucinations because of it."

"Did any of them die or grow violent?"

"Not that I recall," he replied. "But who knows what is possible with Tavran plants. They are overflowing with them. There is a tree, a kind of spurge, that grows in Tavra, that is called the death-apple, whose fruit and leaves and everything are very poisonous; they dry the wood out and treat it somehow, and the wood, if properly handled, is excellent, good for cabinets. It is remarkable how even poisonous things can do great good if they are simply respected properly; they just need to be given the right place."

The conversation then turned to other matters, reminiscences and gossip about family, neighbors, and friends. In the late afternoon, Baia returned to the manor, having asked her father to keep his ears open for any rumors about Tavra. 

There was the inevitable business to consider, since to be queen is always to have new tasks begging to be done, so she was quite tired when she began to think about going to bed. She had not quite begun to move in that direction when there was a commotion outside. There were riders riding up to the manor. She went to go see who it could be, just in time to see Disan dismounting his horse. Setting aside all queenly reserve, she ran over and embraced him.

"Well," he said teasingly, "I arrived back in Soromir hoping to see my beautiful queen and discovered that she is out and about and spending the entire treasury."

"I have not spent that much," she said half-indignantly, and he laughed.

"It would not matter, in any case," he said. "The trade with the Chipou tribes has been going extremely well."

"Are you here to join the Visitation?"

"Alas, no," Disan said. "I am still officially in Residence at Neyat Sor, so I will be returning tomorrow. I'll take Sosan back, if you don't mind. A very large number of things need to be organized, and I don't think I trust anyone else to help me get it quite right. You can finish your Tour, as long as you hurry back to me -- and Ker, who is missing you greatly, despite pretending that he is not. But, besides getting Sosan, I could not bear to spend much longer without seeing my queen."

"Well," she said in reply, "I am glad to be your second reason after Sosan."

Baia felt much less tired than she had, and they headed off to discuss what had happened in each other's absence. They had a great deal to discuss.