This story is a work of fiction. It contains descriptions of violent behaviour, as well as descriptions of moments of physical affection. If you find this type of story offensive, or if you are underage and it is illegal for you to read it, please exit now. All characters are fictional and in no way related to any persons living or deceased. Any such similarity is purely coincidental and uncanny.
This work is copyrighted by the author and may not be reproduced in any form without the specific written consent of the author. It is assigned to the Nifty Archives under the provisions of their submission guidelines but it may not be copied or archived onto any other site without the direct consent of the author.
I do not know how well-received these chapters are. The only clues I get are in emails from readers. Do you like the story? Hate it? Have liked it since its emergence? Feel it is getting too obsessive? Not Tarantino enough? Think Evendal should take a vow of silence? Let me know. I can be contacted at Bookwyrm6@yahoo.com
Special thanks to Rob for editing.
Copyright 2003 Kristopher R. Gibbons. All rights reserved by the author.
Chapter 37 Her Weedy Trophies
Queen: There, on the pendant boughs her coronet weeds
Clambering to hang, an envious sliver broke;
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide;
And, mermaidlike, awhile they bore her up:
Which time she chanted snatches of old tunes;
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and indu'd
Unto that element.
Hamlet Act IV, Scene vii, lines 172-180
He would have to remember that young children have no time sense. Kri-estaul, once awakened, proved a hard taskmaster at night's ninth hour. Eager to be active, he would have disdained the common-sense measures of packing for weather changes, for his physical needs, and for hunger.
"Papa, the sun is almost up. The tide will return before we are anywhere near the harbour."
"Kri-estaul, I am not careening out the door without precautions. Nor without food in my belly. So rein in your furore. Nothing of consequence can occur else We are there sanctioning."
The child was nearly in tears. "But we have to be aboard early. You said so."
Evendal nodded his approval for the waxed oilskin, then bent and kissed his son's head. "Father of my fathers, manifest. I ken your presence."
A sourceless whisper permeated the room. "Is it well, child?"
Evendal sighed, feeling a trifle overworn. "I have said it is so. You attach yourself where you needs must. Kri-estaul is your capitol, your lodestone. Visible or not, where else would you tarry?"
Surn-meddil's semblance walked out from around the jakes, as though he had been hiding where its corner and the room's wall met. He sported a deep crimson tunic and overtunic, and purpure cape and hood. The spectre knew to fashion the illusion's cloak to a shade that would not cause confusion or comment, nearly maroon.
"I presume you wish to join us phenomenally(174)?" the King remarked dryly.
"If you have no objection." Surn-meddil could not quite bring himself to ask outright, and Evendal quietly chided himself for the pointless cruelty of goading him to.
"I welcome you, your wisdom, and your memory." He grinned in self-mockery. "Perhaps you know of some way to calm this wild creature called 'Kri-estaul'?"
Kri-estaul's lower lip curled out and down, his eyes registering hurt.
"Greetings, beloved boy," the spectre smiled woodenly, no expression on his features, but a glow to match Evendal's hinted at in his flintlike eyes.
"Health and prosperity to you, grandfather," Kri muttered. "I am not a wild beast. It is just that Papa is taking everything in the Palace with him. And I want to see... I want out!"
"Patience, youngling," Surn-meddil chided. He turned again to the King. "How did you plan to keep your son untouched by the season?"
"A song. Either stilling the winds or cocooning him in ember-gentle warmth."
The spectre shook his head in negation. "You would try harnessing a noumenon less amenable than the sea, and would fail, to comprehend the winds so. And you could not succeed at maintaining a protective... chrysalis that would also allow you to carry him."
"And you would offer yourself? Can you keep the winds from visiting his face too roughly?"
"At present I dwell within the seeding season, and can encompass our sweetling in the self-same temper. Though it would be politick to bundle him as one bracing the cold, to assuage the quick-minded."
"And what of the domain we must traverse? Will my brother sovereign permit...?"
"She will permit no impediment to his comfort or safety, on my authority, come what may," Surn-meddil affirmed.
"No one asked me what I would," Kri-estaul complained, uncertain of his rights.
The King's impassive mien educated Kri-estaul before Evendal even spoke. "My responsibilities in this occasion, Kri, carry more weight than your wishes. I must be free of limb once we are offshore. But I cannot countenance your being a league or more from my watchfulness, and so you accompany me aboard ship. But you do so in the manner providing you the greatest measure of safety. That means your... Surn-meddil. This is one of those decisions you do not participate in, my son."
"Not fair!" Kri-estaul barked.
Evendal ignored the outburst, knowing it for a sign of anxiety and restlessness, accepting it as a welcome display of selfishness.
Once fully garbed for the initial stage of the day's liturgies, Evendal, Surn-meddil, and Kri-estaul sailed through the corridors to the central chamber of the main Palace building. In the vaulted nave lit only by lamps and lanterns, they met up with Danlienn ald'Muirek, Drussilikh, Sialuon, and their Guard escort. As though they had been waiting for the royal presence, Priestess Sygkorrin and Aldul stepped from the shadows, surprising Evendal with Edrionwytt and Cheselre as companions.
"Your Majesty," Aldul began. "Mother Anlota and her charges await in the antechamber with Chancellor Fillowyn. Well-wishers and those Palace attendants without employment at this strange hour await beyond. Guard Ierwbae supervises Onkira's readiness and will return anon."
And Evendal thought how he yet needed amenable stewards; Aldul was no one's herald. "Are you so anxious to give yourself over to unnecessary pain?"
The Kwo-edan quirked one corner of his lip in a grin. "I would be excoriated in memory were I to write in my chronicles: 'My weakness kept me from witnessing a spectacle such as has not occurred for two hundred and fifty years.'"
"You are charting your life in letters and rag?"
Aldul's grin pulled up the other corner of his mouth. "Only from when
I left Kwo-eda."
Soon enough Onkira and Iliamarro emerged from the dimness, encircled by a cohort and preceded by a grim Ierwbae. The woman who had loomed so large in Evendal's childhood wore the traditional blue-tinged white, her large-boned frame seeming somehow shrunken. Just in her trek up from the under-grounds, she had managed to soil the weighted cloth.
"She pretended to run, then attacked one of the Guard for his dagger. She got one with the goal, to all appearances, of harming herself!" Ierwbae's lingering shock was palpable. His was the common man's perception, Evendal saw, what a Hramal of Kelotta would feel.
That concept so foreign to his home and language reared its crest again. It had dashed like sea spray in his face from the beginning. Aldul had been the first to mention it; to admit harbouring the urge in a period of ecstasy, out of some fevered misconception of justice for failing to save his family.(175) Evendal allowed that Mar-Elionir, Jek-kandere's sister, might indeed have intended only to wound herself enough to get sent from the Palace and into the impartial domain of the Archate healers(176), as her brother attested. And Gwl-lethry had not, even in his extremity, intended to destroy himself so much as to protect what was more precious to him -- the secret of the existence of his wards. Again and again the King confronted Hramal struggling around, encircling, the reality he himself must have comprehended during the vacuole that was his last nine years.
Ierwbae's report reminded the King of Onkira's game with the Tatorea, what he had thought a bit of mummery. He turned his glow upon the downcast woman. Is this where these disparate people had learned of 'self-slaughter'? Was it part of her contagion? "Whence this impulse to injure yourself, Onkira?"
After a long wait, when it became obvious the question was not rhetorical, the woman responded. "What else is there? Should I not exercise the only authority left to me? The only right? The right to choose the bell of my death."
"That privilege is not yours. It has never been yours. Whence came this delusion?"
But the woman would not, or could not, answer.
"'Tis of no matter, mayhap the perverse impulse will drown with you. Aldul, you said the first wave awaits us without?"
"Then let us greet those in the next room and give the others opportunity to return to the warmth within or join us." Thus saying, Evendal opened the door and strode up to a bleary-eyed Mother of Midwives.
"Anlota! Gardner of Our citizens, how fare you?"
"Tired!" the woman snapped. "Uncovering the breadth of my arrogance, Your Majesty. How I blithely left too many of my charges to Osmaredhi(177) tasks while feeling so benevolent and useful."
"Say the word, bend that neck of yours to more than your own years, and We will find other caretakers to grant you a rest."
Anlota scowled up at the King. "Do that, and I shall claim your throne as restitution for the grievous wrong you will have done me. Harl is the sweetest, gentlest limpet to attach himself to my heart. And Lles reminds me again and again of Ierwbae's wilful father."
"Then We are content." The two princelings flanked their new custode, wrapped cap-a-pe(178) in wool and linen. Harl seemed sturdy enough, but Lles's fragility stirred misgivings in Evendal. "Mother of Midwives, do you yourself wish to attend this graceless rite?"
"Sire, I witnessed all I care to of this poor fool's life. I know why you execute her in the manner you have chosen, and why you dare this weather to do so. But I see no value in my witnessing such a demise, or the worst of Oseidh folly leading up to it."
"We agree, and limit your participation, and the participation of your charges, to watching us from these steps as We leave the Palace grounds. Stay and stay warm with Our sanction."
Alarmed, Anlota protested, "Your Majesty!"
"Nay, good lady. 'Tis not censure but caution for the health of Our wards, and care for you whom We love."
"Your Majesty, who attends upon Kri-estaul that he rests so docile against?"
"A distant kinsman, Mother Anlota, Our Warden of Kh'anderif. Chancellor?"
The elder bowed. "All is as prepared as can be."
"Then let us all begin this cruel necessity."
Again the King walked to the opposite wall and opened the doors. An eager wind forced itself in before anyone could move, startling everyone's skin - covered or not -- and warning all fairly. Evendal glanced back at the crimson figure behind and to his right cradling an ermine-cased, wide-eyed Heir with apparent ease, shared a grin in complicity, and strode out.
He was once more surprised to find easily fivescore people radiating out from the Palace steps. The silence with which these Palace workers stood moved Evendal to speak where he had intended to simply let the Guard take the vanguard and to walk on.
"Loyals of the Palace, that you are here tells Us that what We do matters to you. Either you had come to honour the lady We execute this day, or to revile her and wish her plague. What Onkira might mean to you of honour in nobility knows no diminishment with her death. We conversely hope that what Onkira might embody for you of the flaws in nobility, or that the evil you ascribe to her, dies with her. It is with Arkedda's sanction that We go forth now, to wash away the weaknesses of the recent past."
Guard preserved a path to the Causeway, with Guard preceding and succeeding a manacled Onkira and Iliamarro, and Guard encircling Evendal, Kri-estaul and Surn-meddil. Cheselre, Edrionwytt, Anlota, Drussilikh, and Scrivener Kiulen all suffered Guard escorts. As Evendal watched, Shulro dug into a basket and let fly with some soft produce to accent Onkira's attire. Othanya and Omerludi seeing no consequence ensue, joined their mistress in her carefully targeted assault. Only one Guard near the detainees flinched.
The King, not wanting any intimation of passivity to warp this ritual, marched with his company ahead of his foster-mother. Once they passed through the entrance from the Palace grounds, they left behind Shulro, her helpers, Punfaesyl, and Ierowen, but not the city's supply of well-stocked onlookers. People's aim quickly degenerated, and everyone had to walk carefully who walked in Onkira's wake.
This section of Osedys' coast held too many rocks and narrow seaways to allow a full harbour(179), but the Thronelanders had learned the extreme changes in water depth that typified the City's northernmost coastline well enough to fashion a marina(180).
When he and his entourage attained the small dock, Evendal felt relieved to see that Alekrond was as good as his word: One cadre of seamen kept the designated pier clear of the hoi polloi. The attending gentry formed a line up the dock to where the boats moored and Prawtth waited, candidates mustered by the royal will. Out beyond the pier, coracles and boats of varying seaworthiness littered the view, accented by three good-sized caravels.
As the King stepped onto the quay he took a deep breath of relief that he and his son had left the hecklers and the press of humanity behind.
"Master Cantor, would you bear witness for Us?" Evendal's nose had begun to run from condensation before he had stepped off the Palace grounds; the resultant stuffiness affected his speech.
The Cantor of the Criers bowed and answered in a throaty alto, "I would, good my Lord."
"Then follow in Our wake," the King bade and stepped up to the next celebrant. "Typika Sielre-han, would you bear witness for Us?"
The Lady gave her respects. "I would, Your Majesty."
"Then follow in Our wake."
"Mek-Rwathil, We greet you and wish you well. Stand down, faithful vassal of Ours." The young man bowed and retreated from the queue.
Down the line of craft-masters and manorlords Evendal walked, excusing some and engaging others. The Mistress of Limners was thanked and released from the summons, likewise Mistress Illandoigh of the Dyers.
To the King's surprise and gratitude, Gwl-lethry of the Tinde'keb awaited his pleasure, along with Ro¤irhasel, the Designate for Yew and Ash. Evendal allowed them to choose for themselves if they wished to attend in the allotted caravel. Edrionwytt, Wytthenroeg's proxy-Master of Paludiers and Manorlord of Ulistrien Harbour, distracted Evendal by hugging him in greeting. Melisto, Jaserle's proxy, could not banish her grin of anticipation, nor could Heamon of the Cinqet.
The King dismissed the nineteen other manorlords, ritually acknowledging their loyal attendance. At the end of the queue, waiting for him, were 'Udles-talm, Beam-master of the Shipwrights, Vice-gerent Prawtth and, holding an ornate trident -- prongs down -- Melianth, wife of Alekrond.
The daughter of Shenrowyn was a physically striking woman, though not so much in height or figure. What distinguished Melianth was the sign of Forest-dweller heritage in her light fog-grey eyes and in how prolonged sun and salt had turned her once-dull mahogany hair to a more unmanageable cherry-wood nest. Evendal recalled her as a pudgy, irrepressible fount of questions. He expected that that first impression, salvaged from over ten years ago, would outlast all changes he might witness in her, all the machinations of Mutabilitie. And Melianth knew changes, among them pending motherhood.
"Lady Melianth olm'Shenrowyn, We trust you are well."
"Your August Majesty," Melianth dropped a shallow obeisance, and then used the trident to help her stand at her King's prompting. Her moment's support caused a jangle as though the device had discordant bells dangling. There were no loose ornaments; whatever made the persistent reactive clatter moved inside. "I yield to you the Sceptre, ensign of the authority(181) you prepare to wield this day."
"We reclaim this Our tool most happily. When We found it not among Polgern's flotsam We feared he had pawned it, ignorant of its actual worth and purpose. Our gratitude for this gift." He turned back and beckoned Surn-meddil closer.
In a raspy alto, Melianth clarified provenance. "His late Majesty entrusted its safety to a lieutenant who survived the inundation aboard ship. And so when my Lord Maritime accepted Master Polgern's tenders for my hand and my father's titles, he knew to demand this as part of the trappings of the office."
To keep the Sceptre silent, Evendal set it, prongs down, to bite the wood at his feet. "We are much surprised that the Abacus did not die of choler(182), with so many of his ambitions disgraced. Again, Our thanks. Our son the Most Serene Highness Kri-estaul pier'Vendalh, U`strho Surn-meddil agdh'Ys-h(183)rynn, We present Our Maritime Counsellor Melianth olm'Shenrowyn."
That Evendal introduced Shenrowyn's heir to the crimson figure in a public setting told all attending - without the burden of explanation - that Surn-meddil possessed a puissance and estate above King's Advisor but equal to or just beneath the King's Heir.
"Fair sailing and safe harbouring, in peace or war, young mother."
Melianth said naught until her liege gestured permission. "Good winds and prosperous berth for you as well, exalted sir. Your Majesty, I did not anticipate your companion for His Highness. Each craft provides for only two passengers, needing four oarsmen to prevail against the winter coastal flows in a timely manner."
"Oh, these two shall constitute no burthen," Evendal assured wryly, indicating Surn-meddil and Kri. "Those launches you have provided shall be an elegant sufficiency."
So it proved. In the movement of Guard and envoy, Surn-meddil and Kri-estaul somehow got left out of the accounting. Unperturbed, Evendal insisted that he and Melianth take the first launch, Onkira and Iliamarro be hoisted onto the second. Sygkorrin and Aldul struggled into the third rowboat, with Drussilikh and Cheselre in the fourth. Those craft-masters, proxies and manorlords appointed to attend chose their own order of embarkation into the subsequent caravels.
The ebbing tide made headway out easier, but their short passage in winter water was far from smooth. Even so, the King preferred the smell of salt and spume to dead fish and bird droppings.
"So, by what means do We reach the deck? Rope? Laddering?"
Melianth grimaced. "Sling and windlass for Your Majesty. We would show some care for your dignity. We have fashioned a reinforced crenellation, a lip out from the hull that keeps you from being dragged up against the rough planking and lessens the degree of pitch you will suffer. You bear sturdy gloves?" The King nodded. "Good. You will yet have to safeguard yourself against the ship's yaw as you ascend."
His boarding smoothly accomplished, with naught but some bloodied palms, Evendal found a small bundle of excitement awaiting him. "What delayed you so?" Kri-estaul demanded, smugly leaning against Surn-meddil. "We've been here for bells and bells!"
Expressionless, Surn-meddil corrected his companion. "In truth, child, I did not remove His Serene Highness from the pier until you attained the cornice."
"Father of my fathers, with regards to my son I trust you. I am his parent and not yours, so rest easy." The King turned to his new audience and, away from the courtiers either waiting ashore or being transported to the other ships, gave proper introductions.
"Our son the Most Serene Highness Kri-estaul pier'Vendalh, U`strho Surn-meddil agdh'Ys-hierynn, late Majesty of the Thronelands and current Warden of Kh'Anderif, We present Our Maritime Counsellors Melianth olm'Shenrowyn and Alekrond lin'Agredd."
Surn-meddil turned his masklike visage on Alekrond. "'lin'? Nikraan?"
The huge man shook his head. He rumbled, "Islander, not Nikraan, Lord Surn-meddil."
Alekrond looked pallid, tired; his eyes smudged and his charisma, his vitality, damped. Neither Evendal nor Surn-meddil commented, though Kri-estaul stared openly. The man's countenance drove home the reason for haste, and for Prawtth having stood in as his procurator(184).
A decent wash rolled past the ship, diverting Kri-estaul's attention. "Papa!"
"That is what happens on a ship, my son. It moves. Everything but the ocean, the winds, and the horizon move with it." Evendal smiled, inviting Kri-estaul to join him in the adventure. After a considered examination around him, the boy grinned cautiously back.
"Make it do that again."
"Patience, incorrigible one."
Evendal, who had had no difficulties in the boat, found himself feeling decidedly unsettled on the ship. "When can we raise anchor?"
Melianth glanced askance. "When the last pair of guests have been secured."
Belatedly, Evendal recalled the participants. "You may need to use that... hoist for Aldul of Kwo-eda. He suffers from a crippling pain in his knees and ankles, his fingers and shoulders." Startled, Melianth hurried to redirect that launch around toward the winch's station.
While Kri-estaul waited with Surn-meddil, no one had talked on the pier, no one had chatted or smiled; aside from indiscernible mutterings and sombre cautions, no one felt like speaking at all. By the time Aldul's raft had been secured, Kri-estaul's excitement had become tempered with disappointment. "Why is everyone acting so sad? So odd?" He did not realise he had spoken aloud until Surn-meddil chose to answer him.
"They are preparing an execution such as has not been done in one hundred to one hundred and fifty years. And for your King's foster mother. No ruler wants this to be what he is remembered for."
"What is so different about this execution?"
"Some people, Kri-estaul, do not think of anything but the consequences they desire. You saw that clearly enough with the Stoner and the former Militia General, true?" Kri-estaul nodded. "They take no account for the actual consequences of their wishes, only the hoped-for ones. The more power or responsibility a person has, the greater effect any decision they make has. They betray not only the people they know, but the trust of the populus... those ties of belonging that are not even thought about by anyone, that are neglected as inherent. Or taken for granted, some would say. This is one of the mysteries that define us as Hramal, and as Thronelanders, Kri-estaul. Whether we enact laws around it or not, whether we treat each stranger as an enemy or a friend, in the back of our minds we know that a stranger being neglected or disdained -- unacknowledged -- will poison the wellspring of our community, will affect every single resident eventually. We know, at some gut level, that we are bound to the citizens and noncitizens in our land."
"But Papa has declared people t'bo. That sour-faced woman. Pur-denli. He ordered that everyone neglect her, didn't he?"
As the query involved the present King's actions, Surn-meddil forbore comment or explication; to do otherwise was presumptuous.
Evendal stared in amazement at his son's memory and degree of perception.
When he got no answer to the inconsistency, Kri-estaul asked, very softly. "Did I say something bad? I'm sorry, Papa."
That snapped Evendal out of his fugue. "No, Kri. You just surprised me again, you marvel. To answer your question... Imagine Osedys is some huge cob's web made up of people. Some came from elsewhere, some were born into the web. But each one, and I mean every single one, by their choices either remains part of the web or tries to destroy it. Most do not realise how they cement or sever their bindings. When I come across those who try to destroy the community, and who will not desist, then I must remove them from the web. People such as Onkira do not allow for anyone else's needs or rights in the face of their own wants; though they may say otherwise, by their actions they do not see anyone else as a citizen at all. Time and argument will not change her. And other people, in a receptivity that does not involve thinking, can be poisoned with the same malady she enjoys. So I thought to declare her t'bo; banned from social intercourse with anyone. Such people usually do not survive for very long, and if they are discovered co-operating, they are slain outright.
"In Onkira's case, she plotted against not only the ruler of Osedys, but against the entire city. She plotted against her birth-land and her adopted home. As she is my foster mother, my preference would be to send her -- again -- to Arkedda. But the ruler there anticipated me, and gave all authority for her fate into my hands. Had her crimes been solely against the Thronelands, she would have died as the Militia General did, torn apart by the wild children of the land. But she saw her wants as more important than all webs, all communities of Hramal. And so, as Left Hand of the Unalterable, I declared her outcast from us all, a violator of the most basic rights and laws of all the kingdoms. And by her attempt on the life of Wytthenroeg of Alta -- Alta being the strand that connects Hramal with Forest-dweller, and Wytthenroeg being of a family honoured by Hramal and Forest-dweller alike -- Onkira became a traitor in the eyes of all humankind in Kelotta.
"That was a long explanation. Do you understand, though?"
"I think so. I said she was stupid. I didn't realise how dumb she was."
"Oh, no, Kri. She is far from stupid. Just wilfully blind, selectively blind."
"What a piece of work she is!" Alekrond grunted. "I would say, spike her through that diseased heart. But I guess that would defeat the purpose, eh?"
With a start, Kri-estaul realised Alekrond's rough comments came from concern, his attempt at lightening a grim situation with equally harsh humour.
With assistance, Aldul had alighted onto the deck of the Seal's Down and all the other skiffs had reached their ships.
"Up anchor!" croaked Alekrond. "Coxswain, you know our goal!"
Something bumped against the ship and, responsive to Kri-estaul's wishes, Surn-meddil moved briefly toward the side for him to see a coracle being sloppily manoeuvred by a bleary-eyed woman. As Kri watched, the woman pushed against the side of the galley, then began cursing the two indolent men sharing her too-small boat. The Prince looked around and noticed how their ship now moved away from a veritable panoply of dinghies, coracles, and rafts of differing sizes and degrees of seaworthiness. One motley cluster of sculls trailed behind the coracle, their tenants clearly struggling to approach the Seal's Down. The majority of boats, however, moved in fitful disorder westward. A scuttle of pirogues(185) out of Ddronthys Island, equipped with poles and sails, patrolled diligently; relying on their sails for propulsion, they used their staves to puncture any encroaching craft, making the vagrants' return to land a desperate necessity.
To Kri-estaul's guilty pleasure and amazement, the Seal's Down simply ploughed on to her destination, oblivious of the fate of any around her.
Frowning in silence, Evendal joined Kri-estaul at his vigil.
"What are you thinking, Papa?"
"Idiots!" Evendal whispered. "Ghouls and leeches. Better than most, I know this aspect in everyone. In me. But I will never like it."
"I don't understand. What do you mean?"
"If we were on the shore right now, Kri, you would see people who have no idea which end of a paddle to hold onto, selling coracles and rafts of dangerously poor construction to eager citizens equally ignorant. The name of the game along the entire harbour today, Kri, is to make a profit and to enjoy one woman's debasement and agony. The reason for this execution will be indifferently recalled, if at all. People have pulled themselves out of drunken stupors or suddenly become too ill to work, just to go bobbing helplessly in the water in hopes of spitting on some woman they have never seen before. All along the harbour people are probably selling icons of me or my father, standing over the body of what is supposed to be Onkira, with one foot resting on her neck in victory. Or selling little bits of limestone with miniature shackles mucilaged to them."
Kri-estaul waited, but Evendal did not laugh or otherwise hint that he jested. "I still don't understand."
"Good. So, Counsellor," the King enquired, turning around. "Whence this affliction of yours? How does it manifest?"
Prawtth gaped at the frankness, but then quickly fled to his tasks. Melianth scowled. The old pirate grinned.
"Heaving, nausea, guts twisting on their own. You heard me just now. I can't make myself heard the way I used to. I get out of breath too damn easily."
Aldul had hobbled over and bowed. "Your Majesties. Your Highness."
Surn-meddil declined his head. Evendal responded familiarly, "My friend." Kri-estaul murmured, "Unk'Aldul."
The Kwo-edan plunged right in to the discussion. "What do you eat and drink most commonly, Master Alekrond?"
The Maritime Counsellor knit his brow in consideration. "Grog in those mornings in which I waken. Salted cod, usually with defrutum(186) for elevenses. Dinner is not always the same, but lately involves oysters or escargot in a rice-wine sauce and barley beer. Finally, I supp on shark, salmon, eel, or crabs steamed in wine. Or bottarga(187) when we can get the eggs; bottarga with garum. And ale."
"Do you ever attempt teas or barley-water?" Aldul asked, dumbfounded. "Tisanes? Soft cider? Must? Even panaka?(188)"
Alekrond raised one eyebrow. "Why?"
"In order that you might live long enough to see your adult son again, and attend the birth of your baby!" Evendal barked. "Between the salt and potables, you have gorged on nothing but poisons... for how many years now?"
Alekrond tried to act infuriated, scowling hard for a moment. But his indignation could not sustain itself and he answered civilly, "Four years."
"And for how long has your son been away?"
Alekrond whispered, "Five years." And Evendal ald'Menam saw yet another vassal whom he had betrayed -- failed -- through unplanned royal exile.
"We have yet to be forsworn or glib in Our promises. Do you want your son returned to you?"
The old pirate glowered. "You know that I do."
"Then truth is called for(189). What does this manling have to look forward to should he return?" At Alekrond's blank expression, Evendal clarified, "His fleeing forced you to wed his intended, a circumstance that, however fortuitous for him, does not signify a peace between you. What can you proffer to keep him from fleeing immediately upon return?"
The King was merciless. "That would serve for the offending incident. But not for what engendered the trouble. It mattered not to Polgern which of you wedded and bedded Shenrowyn's daughter, or even whether such a union came to pass. Why did you press him so particularly?"
The Maritime Counsellor glanced about, noting a respectful distance between his party and the rest of the crew. "I spoke without thought, without wisdom or care. Blithe words not meant to do the damage they did."
M'Alismogh would not be placated. "Without wisdom or care? Yes, but not without thought. Whence the glib rite? This assumption given voice?"
"My family..." Alekrond breathed in and out like a bellows. "My line hails from Nikaloh(190)."
"Did you think that would irk me or my father?" Melianth intruded softly. "That another generation's dilution would make your lineage less grotesque? Our circumstance was too dire to permit such puerile sensibilities."
"No," Evendal contested, keenly eyeing Alekrond's discomfiture. "You are not addressing the superfluity of miscegenation. Not the heritage bourn by your blood, but that incised -- unknowingly -- in your heart and mind."
Alekrond nodded. "My father's father made himself a heretic by Nikloan reckoning. Merely because he was more willing to take what he could get than bleed and die over what he could not. He cast away all that might betray him as 'Nikraan' to his market, all the trappings. His ambitions differed from his kith's, but only his ambitions. Just as any Nikloan -- as you say Nikraan -- he would have been scandalised that I call a brown-skin 'lord' or 'friend', murderous that I wedded one. My father was kinder than he, but still blind and cruel by any Hramal's assessment. And I proved just as brutal.
"In my family, each son has cast himself adrift. My father's father utterly abandoned his clan, his people. My father fled as well, discarding his father like flotsam. I, in turn, hating him with every sinew in me, fled my father never to return. And so did my son deal with me. But I gave him no fitter choice, no cause to hope for my love still. All because I am my damn father's heir! More Nikraan than Hramal!"
"What fault roars so in your heart?" Shenrowyn's daughter demanded.
The King interceded, hoping to restore some calm and clarity. "As We review what We know of Nikraan custom and mores, We find little coheres: While arbitrary in your punishments -- and leaving aside the dilemma that is Mausna -- you have killed only once and in hot blood: The underling who tragically took his grievance and thwarted ambitions out on your first wife. You don't rest your decisions or judgements on omens, or the contours of seagull entrails. You never had a rival or opponent served up for your meal, nor buggered them in their defeats. You employ and permit no scapegoat or whipping boy for another's transgressions, not even your son's. In all your dealings but one, 'landsman' has not translated into 'chattel' or 'vermin.' You do not infibulate your crew-women or any daughters of your crew. You eschew contracts of durative indenture."
Alekrond forced a dulled gaze on the King during this listing. "You know, do you not?"
Softer than a vagrant westerly, Evendal breathed, "We deem We do. You cling to that cankerous memory as to your dearest companion, as though you were making a pearl of it."
"You glean my thoughts?" Alekrond demanded, horrified.
The King shook his head. "No and yes. Having considered Our odd intuitions, We are cautiously certain of what We heed. 'Tis a questionable ornament, a satellite talent as Left Hand of the Unalterable. An indifferent trait, to hear offtimes what another wants most to say, dwells on most incessantly, or fears most to reveal. But the common rush and blunder of thoughts and wants pass Us by in silence.
"How fares Our dear foster-mother, Master Counsellors?"
Melianth blinked a few times, as one startled from a dream or fancy. She then scanned her spouse with a frown. "Blood be damned," she muttered. "You are no Nikraan with me."
Prawtth approached and bowed perfunctorily. "We had to gag her, Your Majesty. Her wailing and weeping troubled my crew. They are a sentimental lot, and she looks the essential distressed innocent."
Evendal nodded his approbation. "And Iliamarro?"
The older woman hesitated. "Now that one troubles even me, Your Majesty. She has no sense, and no sense of what she has invited into her heart. The girl has tried to suborn some of us even now to aid in her mistress's escape."
"Solidly... deluded, then?"
Surn-meddil intruded. "Do you doubt your own adjudication?"
Evendal snarled back, "I mislike my own uncertainty, not of their guilt, but of the degree of their malignance. I have my own incessant query pounding like the surf in my mind: 'Does she warrant this measure?'"
The spectre shaped a grimace. "Fairly thought. Let me broach this with our brother lord, and together we might could achieve an honest answer before the bell of her execution arrives."
Evendal waited, but Surn-meddil remained phenomenal, and held fast to an oddly amused-looking Kri-estaul.
"For what do you stare so?"
The King grinned self-consciously. "My apologies, besayle(191), I thought you might need to relinquish my son whilst communing with the Moonchild."
"Issue of my son's son, you forget, my limits and disabilities differ from yours." Surn-meddil's semblance lowered his head to regard the legless child he cradled. "Heir and debtor of mine, do you yet intend to invest every privilege of your station in your son? Every privilege?"
The King shook his head. "The honour of 'Left Hand of the Unalterable' is not always a ruler's privilege. It is a rogue, an investment from out of need, not a bequest." He scowled, as he considered further. "Kri-estaul would be burdened with sleepless nights and troubled dreams unceasing should I even attempt to make him 'Swordbrother of the Sea'. Adult kin have been unmanned by the ritual."
"It is from such a suspicion I asked. I well recall how I was granted the right, and I now know that, unaided, you would only insure Kri-estaul's murder(192). She will not suffer approach by landsmen of an unfamiliar blood or strain. Tossing him, excoriated, to a shark would be kinder."
Alekrond glanced between the two royals, alarmed at what, to him, seemed a confusing digression. "Your Majesty, what of my son? What would you have of me?"
Evendal pulled his attention to the Counsellor's haggard countenance and asked the vital question with gentle intensity. "In the excitement of his recovery, doubtless you will grant your son any liberty, good Counsellor. But once the joy of recapitulation ebbs, how will you continue to treat with him and anyone who might cleave to him?"
Alekrond paused to acknowledge the hit, then answered with timbreless gravity and no trace of the poseur, "With honour. And what respect my son grants them, that I will grant them also.
"Your Majesty, I had no hint of the turmoil I visited upon him. A ferryman's choice(193)."
The King raised a brow in patent disbelief. "You knew," he refuted. "Maybe not the cause, but the depths of his conflict. But the threat and lure that Polgern dangled before you blinded you to all else. So I must ask... What next shall you sacrifice your son's honour for, when he returns?"
Alekrond latched on to that one word. "'When he returns?' You will effect his restoration?"
"Yes," Evendal allowed. "But it seems to Us that you have much to apologise for." He raised his hand to halt Alekrond's protestations. "Not simply toward your son. You have a wife who cannot be feeling very charitable toward you at the moment. Your ambition and heedlessness would have bound her into a contract with a disgraced and melancholic fury. She it is that you have treated as chattel! The fortunate consequences you both now enjoy are solely because of your son's defiance of you. Go begin to make amends or at least admit clear culpability."
With a bow and a squint of misery, Alekrond obeyed, escorting his wife the traditional distance out of the royal circle of presence before speaking with her.
Evendal took a deep, chill breath and wished himself back in front of a Palace fireplace. "Dear companion, is there naught can be done to preserve that particular nobility for Kri-estaul? It kept a second islander incursion from succeeding after the Nikraan wave got slaughtered. 'She,' as you say, has ever been the unwitting custodian of our waters. That must not change."
"I have seen every prince renew the covenant with the Old Woman from the time I stopped breathing at the same rhythm as you. And since Kahalam(194), those occasions have been more in the fashion of ordeals than the meeting of two rulers that it truly is."
The King of the Thronelands nodded. "Father had Alekrond cordon a section of water between the Witness and Shield cays. Told me only to pay attention to all he did because I would have to do the same some day. Then we set out in a dinghy and at one point he tripped me over into the ocean. All I remember is being terrified, then my head and hands stinging, and then some woman talking with me. And so do I remember her, but was unsure if she came of a panic-born fancy."
Surn-meddil felt moved to clarify a detail. "Water dwellers' organs of gender do not prescribe their haviours in the same way as humans' do. But, as this personage is passive by habit, with appetites like a whale shark, I perceived her as feminine."
Evendal knew his ancestor was no pedant and simply waited, his stomach calm since the ship was moving in a distinct direction and not listing in place.
Surn-meddil continued on. "With each communion between rulers, there has been a random exchange beyond the words land-lords might have thrown at her. So it was with me. She took my assumptions of what distinguished our two genders and appropriated them for her use."
Evendal nodded. "And that is why she appeared as a woman to me."
"Also, no land-born prince has addressed her, in those requisite visitations, since Kahalam's time."
The King looked appalled. "Blood and thunders! Our tongue has changed so since! She may not understand me, else I share with her as Osmaredh did."
"It may come to that, but not currently. We are nearing the rock."
Between the westernmost corner of the main peninsula and the northern edge of the coral bank called 'the Witness' was a carbuncle of lava-hard rock that emerged above the waterline only during low tides. When referred to by anyone, which was seldom, it was called Traitor's Wash. Whatever its own raison d'etre, Traitor's Wash was used by Hramal of the Thronelands exclusively for the execution of those criminals whose trespasses affect more than one realm, those criminals who served as catalysts of degeneration.
Evendal pointed out to what looked like a sandbar, a long stretch of hunter green and variations of brown. "There, Kri. That is Traitor's Wash."
"It's just a pile of seaweed. Isn't it?"
Surn-meddil replied, "It is perhaps the oldest prison and executioner's block in all the Hramal kingdoms. Do you recall my talk about avenging the death of my beloved?"
This was a surprise to Evendal. "What did you tell him?"
"That I knew my belovéd's killers, and sought them out after I fell. I gave them no more mercy than they showed my general, my heart. Their head-weasel died very publicly and very disgracefully. A great mystery in its time. Well forgotten now."
"Thunders! Well, I let Aldul wander through the Records room of the Palace. And while that event you referred to may be forgotten now, it still got chronicled, a forewarning of the fell days that followed.
"Not but maybe a month after your death, seamen near this rock heard frantic cries for help. When one ship neared they found this well-known, autocratic manorlord staked through his forearms and ankles to the Wash. The captain sent a rowboat out, but it sprang huge gaps and holes. When the captain tried a second time, the boat sped, against the efforts of its rowers, south toward the Witness. When a second ship, goaded by the cries of the victim, tried to approach as well, one of its masts caught fire. For five hours that man shouted and cried, then pleaded with his mysterious jailer, to no avail. After the man was dead, boats could come near. They found what was called a promise lock, still secure in the manorlord's pouch. A promise lock is a lock of hair, wound around a ring that identifies the person whose hair it had been. These were once given as earnests of love and lifelong commitment. The promise lock was Surn-meddil's, the one he had given in public rite to Ganil Adhinnon."
"So you see, this place is more than a clump of rock and wrack. And Surn-meddil is more than just a funny relative whom we care for. Both are grim and deadly, Kri." Evendal winced as a gust brought spray into his eyes.
The Prince looked up at his father unperturbed. "You would have done the same thing, Papa. What could you expect? He loves..."
The shackles warned of Onkira's approach before she interrupted. "Can you not stop this yammering? Its enough to make me wish I could throw you over right now, and be done with this!"
"You will not be plagued by us much longer, Onkira." Evendal responded calmly. "Enough. We have arrived."
"Who do you want in her boat, Your Majesty?"
Kri-estaul piped up. "Not me, please."
"Indeed, no." Drussilikh interjected.
"I agree, son," Evendal decided. "Myself and one of your steadiest, dear friend. And yourself."
Alekrond frowned. "Why would you inflict such a duty on me, Lord?"
"That is not why I ask. Yes, for you to help. But also for you to be helped. After we have secured the wench, whilst all landborn eyes are fixed upon her swan-song, you have a passion to undergo, a request to make."
"Can this not be accomplished aboard ship?"
"If my design fails, then so shall we do. Besayle?"
Surn-meddil knew what Evendal asked. "Neither Sea nor Forest offer you any reassurance. Only you may so do."
"How do you mean?"
"Lazy child! It is your office to do so, to plumb the extent of responsibility met or shirked, the culpability of those brought before you, and to mitigate the effect of their obsessions or negligence. You cannot do the latter without determining the extent of that effect. You have already done with Onkira; hold fast to your judgement."
Evendal sighed. "So I must trust that I have acted justly to one I am not indifferent toward." He turned his attention to Kri-estaul. "Will you bear with my expedition patiently? It shall not be long, and 'Grandfather' shall stay with you until I return."
Kri-estaul did not answer right away, but stared out, as though looking for his father's intended destination. "Where else are you going?"
"I have to shackle Onkira. And then I promised Alekrond my help. He misses his son."
"Will you come back? As soon as you can?" The child's grey gaze was direct, piercing, and troubled.
The King's returned his son's look with one of equal openness. "Yes. Or else I shall call you to where I work."
First the dinghy was lowered, then the first seaman scurried down a rope, and then, with no illusion of care, the hobbled Dowager was tied to a rope and lowered over. Next came Evendal in the sling, clumsy and dangerous with the cumbersome trident that he insisted on carrying into the boat, and lastly Alekrond. The water splashed winter-frigid and choppy, and seemed to fight them from the ship to the rock.
The seaman looped an anchoring rope around an iron spike set low on the emergent. In coordinated silence, he and Evendal slid on midcalf-high boots of oilskin, heeled with treated wood and thumbnail-size barbs. Onkira flopped and squirmed in their grip as both men carefully stepped over the side. Even with the cleated shoes, footing was slick and unforgiving. Alekrond, in the boat, lifted over the woman's feet. Then, with the seaman hefting the rope about her waist and Evendal grappling just under her arms, they hauled her onto the low stretch of algae-conquered rock.
In untying Onkira to shackle her arms to the reef, the King received a solid right blow just about his left eye. He said nothing, but paused in his efforts, not letting go or loosening his hold in the slightest, then resumed. The almost hysterical urge to have this gruesome chore done with, abetted by the frigid water, the air, and the ungiving and unforgiving rock, kept him from faltering or retaliating.
The chains had been anchored into the rock through pitons of iron, and the steel-meshed manacles locked tight to their host by the expedient of iron posts that Evendal now hammered into the reef. In the recorded past, criminals with panic's strength had managed to free themselves from the more commonly fashioned clasps; thus Evendal approved a measure which negated all freedom of movement.
Impeded by the seaman's considerable bulk and determination, Onkira's frantic gyrations and flailing counted for nothing. Shaken and weary to his core, scored lightly across his face and prodigally across his back, Evendal stepped carefully away. The Dowager, still garbed in soiled and sodden white, glared hatred and terror at the three men, her legs flared and her arms stretched out in a line with her shoulders. She unwisely dropped her head back, when her neck tired from staring her executioners down.
On a sudden impulse, the King pulled Prawtth's gag-cone from Onkira's maw. "Have you anything you wish Us to know or consider?"
Onkira took a cluster of hard lungfuls, and then deliberately mouthed some water to spew at her foster-son. "I curse you to sterility, that your seed never quicken within a woman, never provide you with solace or the survival of your father's line."
"You waste breath, woman. We would not inflict Our heart and haviours on a woman in the necessary intimacy, nor on children of Our loins. Our father's line survives through other progeny." He spoke the words of ritual. "The hour is of Our choosing, neither night nor day. You lie trapped and contained on a place of Our choosing, neither land nor sea. You abide, for a tide, outside of all place in Kelotta. No longer acknowledged by any estate, not even the disenfranchised t'bo. No longer Hramal, not Forest-dweller, not even Islander."
The woman's teeth chattered and chittered, even as she struggled to respond. "I have spent... expended my adult years, loving my husband, you, and my homes as best I knew to. I have never hurt or plotted to harm anyone."
And Evendal knew what she meant, knew it for a convoluted half-truth. Onkira truly did not consider what she did as plotting ill toward anyone. She did not plot to poison a peer of the realm but to gain the Throne that she had disdained nine years earlier. That Wytthenroeg would have to die was merely a sad effect, not the actual plan or the intention she focused on.
Rages of anger and terror convulsed across the muscles of her face, but Onkira said no more.
Into the sudden quiet, m'Alismogh called out:
Poison to our families,
Phagos(195) of our homes,
Betrayer of our peoples,
Inimical to all
Hramal and Renanai(196).
No longer Arkeddan,
A shame to Hramal.
We deny you purchase.
Onkira, as the between claims you,
So our seas release you,
That our lands be free of you,
Our people cleansed of you,
Henceforth, and for all of the bells
That the tides would pull from our shores.
Turning, Evendal ald'Menam appeared to misstep, and abraded his palms against the moss-begetting coral. Once in the boat with Alekrond, he turned to the oarsman. "Can you, with your captain's aid, move us further south and west?"
"We will run into the mass of spectacle seekers, then," the fellow warned.
"No, we won't. They shall not go that far. Merely stay an equal distance twixt the Sceptre and the Witness. Stop when we are at the point closest to both."
"The Seal's Down would get us there more quickly," the burly Counsellor protested.
"But then I would have to execute your entire crew," the King explained sombrely.
Alekrond began to chortle. Evendal did not join in but looked uncomfortably back at the weakly glistening slime that was Traitor's Wash, and at the thrashing, screaming sacrifice atop it. The woman began crying out, begging all observers in vain for rescue. The sun had begun to rise, making it difficult to see from whence they had come. Evendal shuddered, not needing sight to know that Iliamarro had been executed. Her headless body would then be thrown overboard and her head secured in netting over the side to lessen the mess to be cleaned up.
The King glanced at Alekrond. "You have his cord on you, I expect."
The big privateer blinked, dumbfounded. "How did you know?"
"As Prawtth said, you're a sentimental lot, but not given to fancy tokens." Without further comment, Evendal picked up the Sceptre, which gave off its harsh rattle, and then plunged it trident-down into the water and simply held it, letting it make its own miniscule and more evanescent wake beside the dinghy's.
"Dare the Majesty of Osedys play truant in the midst of a noble's execution and in such a fragile vessel?" Alekrond pondered aloud.
"We are safer here than on land," Evendal countered. "The Lady Sygkorrin knows Our purpose and destination. Ierwbae knows We shall not be returning straightly and will allay any voiced concerns."
"Your Hierophant knows more than I do."
"That shall change soon enough." The King rounded on the elder seaman. "What We invite to Us in this hour are the oldest mysteries that the Throneland harbours, Alekrond. We require your word, on your life, the life of your wife, and the lives of your children -- adult and yet to birth -- that you shall expose no hint of what you witness hence. Not by mouth or hand: No word, look, suggestion, riddlery, or crafty silence, no drawing or writing or charting to even suggest the nature or significance of these `nigmas."
"Your Majesty, I am not likely to live long enough to divulge aught. But as you need my word, you have it. But what of Minfal here?" He indicated his fellow seaman.
"We have no fear of your man's worth and discretion."
"Then what do you anticipate? What will follow?"
"We need to recall what We can of the archaisms colloquial nearly thirty-three generations past. Grant Us quiet for a time."
Bemused and abashed, Alekrond and Minfal complied.
Both increasing distance and continued misuse of her throat diminished the volume of Onkira's curses and protests behind them. The sun had pulled herself two-thirds from the line of the horizon when Minfal and Alekrond stopped. "We've made allowance for the flow of the tide change, Your Majesty, so we are a trifle past the mark you asked after."
"That is well enough. Minfal," Evendal changed his mode of address. "I give you a choice now, Minfal. Had I not needed the Sceptre held in summons, and were your captain hale, you would yet be aboard the Seal's Down and safe. But we required a sturdy man of phlegmatic humour, and so... Shall I put you to sleep? Or must I cut out your tongue, geld you, and feed you your testicles?"
To have the King address a common seaman without fanfare signified a matter of gravity, so Minfal did not doubt the sober words nor could he see them as threat but rather as consequence.
"Sleep, dread Lord."
"Then so you shall," replied m'Alismogh.
Let it be as you so chose,
Make this boat a bed not a bier,
For your heart's utter repose
When Death's shadow swims near.
Beguile this portentous morn with sleep,
Then stir to my voice at the last,
And know by this your life you'll keep
Once peril and wonder have past.
Minfal went from wide-eyed anxiety to complete torpor. Deftly Alekrond caught and lowered his mate, careful of the man's head, then just as carefully stood.
"We row away from our comrades. You put my lone crewman and witness in a glamour. I am trusting you know what you are about. Your Majesty."
Evendal grinned widely and, though he kept his gaze fixed on the surfaces surrounding their boat, fey excitement shone in his eyes brighter than his face's glow. "Your trust is misplaced," he asserted merrily. "But We shall do Our best."
Both men cringed at a particularly strong shriek from well behind them: Onkira venting some of her final frustrations.
When a roundel of still water encircled their dinghy, and remained calm though all without the ring displayed the ocean's restlessness, Evendal reversed the trident and held it at ready. "Brace yourself as best you can," he advised. "Keep an eye behind me, if you would. We have ceased to move with the currents."
"What do you watch for?"
"My brother. Our guardian. She is not bound by our expectations of civility."
The King gestured Alekrond closer. Once near, Evendal softly asked, "Am I still bleeding anywhere?"
"Your forehead and hands, and one cut on your arm, still weep blood."
Evendal nodded. "Wipe some on your face and the back of both of your hands."
"You heard me. Do so, now, please."
Puzzled and uneasy, the privateer obeyed.
"I am not porcelain, my friend. You need to smear it liberally on both hands so that there can be no doubt as to what it is." Quiet, Evendal bore the salty stinging and callous-borne jolts that ensued.
Once Alekrond sat back again, Evendal resumed. "Make no sudden move nor voice any wonder until I free you to do so." The hulking seaman bristled at the sharpness of the command, then nodded acquiescence.
Awkward, m'Alismogh briefly affixed the crown of the ring he wore to a recess in the crux of the Sceptre and twisted his ringed hand a half-turn deasil. After double-checking the concavity, he held the trident out with the prongs tipping in and out of the water as the boat rocked, and sang out loudly.
"Bree-anian, Hlyrradysh s howlemogdh- altaleki. Vranno. Vranno, altaleki, sudichër.(197)"
"Quickly, now," Evendal lapsed back into his natal tongue. "If I am still bleeding, make sure your skin is covered in it." With his free hand, Evendal braced himself against the side while Alekrond obeyed.
"Ibenno, ...altalek." A wind hissed and wheezed from beside the swaying vessel. What appeared to be a nude woman of grey-green glass, shapely and voluptuous with perhaps a longer nose than natural, slowly emerged out of the sea beside them. She scrutinized the boat with three flexing, translucent eyes, keeping in profile to the two men the entire time. A gelatinous hemisphere, resembling nothing so much as a pannier with innumerable vertical striations, served as a pedestal for this semblance. A tangle of withered sargassum and blue tentacle extruded out from the pulsing cupola in all directions, including under the boat.
"When she challenges you," Evendal advised the gaping Maritime Counsel, "mimic my manner." Evendal wiped blood-flow from his forehead and knelt down in the boat. Once it steadied, he slowly rubbed the blood onto the swimmer's cheek, then quickly retracted his hand. Lightning-fast, a thick, white tongue snapped out of the woman's lipless maw and cleaned the flow from her(198) face.
"Wat-tro, me-andur-ha. Phil-hahlulh puf-hralm mee-dho?" "The blood is true, not forgotten. Do you offer yourself to feed us?" The breathy voice came from the bell-like petticoat of gel immediately surrounding the feminine simulacrum.
Evendal glanced back at a trembling Alekrond before replying. "Ketho whewhewhe enudwe, puh-mehrandr-kaw echeh vrennau Oannhaiss edbl'rrendos. Dhusau, ...altalek." "Have you the patience, we have staked prey, a whale(199), to feed your kith with. Feast well, brother."
"Eggl?d murre-expet?" "What parasite can we crop for you?"
"Can you speak in this simpler spume? So my shoal-mate can catch a morsel? It is his mite I disturb you for."
"One spewing is the same as another to us," hissed the swimmer, as Evendal wondered where this kraken(200) meandered undetected often enough that she could learn the vernacular. "So, does he have a bit of vermin needing our care? A fin torn? An old scale that won't moult?"
"Tell her, Alekrond." Evendal twisted his head around again when the seaman made no move to step away from him.
The seaman turned a walleyed stare Evendal's way, dumbfounded.
"Tell her of your need! Quickly!"
"I have a son, a... a whelp, lost. I would know he is well. I want him safe and safely back here."
The womanlike creature moved away, turning her back to them. "That is a contrary current that you desire... for one already spawned. He will resent our hauling him from whatever reef and mate he now claims and defends. You are murky beasts indeed!" Without a ripple, the swimmer disappeared. And Evendal began to doubt the wisdom of this venture.
"Your Majesty, what was that all...?" Alekrond remonstrated, but Evendal motioned him to silence.
"Would you not come swim with us, sweet sand-crab? Slide from where you root and greet us. Join us," the sea-creature warbled from the prow. Ribbed membranes of chromatic translucence splayed out from her form and fanned cold air at the two men.
A mind-emptying frisson bolted through Evendal's body, causing his member to bloat. The glassiness of Alekrond's gaze revealed him to be similarly affected. His mouth began to water excessively. Were the King's thoughts not so grim with the memory of his most recent labour, and were his sinews not tensed in expectation of further peril, he might have mistaken the cause of his tumescence, indeed might have forgotten where he was entirely. Vertigo accompanied the swift blunting of his mental acuity(201), yet Evendal held mulishly to the certainty that if Alekrond obeyed this lorelei-call and moved to the boat's edge the old salt would die.
He raised the sceptre and pressed its teeth against the quickly-drying skin of the being they had sought out. "Do not toy with Our vassal, Our cleaner-fish. Else you challenge Us."
"You speak as from a secure niche? You are well fed and well attended, brother?"
After several moments striving for clarity the King realised that he faced no enemy, however strange and inscrutable, but a cautious ally acting to ensure her neighbour's immediate safety. Evendal imagined that she had chosen the gentlest method in her collection of lures, one that proved brutal and embarrassing only to purely human mores and sensibilities. The royal archive held no record of a king being accompanied by anyone other than the King's Heir during the 'renewals of the covenant.' And Evendal had brought two other life forms, neither one his heir, ample cause for the other sovereign to show how effective the least of her defences could be.
"We are. We see that you are as puissant as ever, Llyssh. Does your home grow with families that spew your benevolence?"
The swordbrother's extruding membranes collapsed into worm-size runnels and slid down to soak into her living pedestal. "They yet bring us news of wonder upon wonder, and humble us with grains of wisdom we can hoard. Even in this season of tempests." She dipped under the waves.
"Blood and swash!" Alekrond barked. "What was that about? Why did it do that?"
The sea-lord, rising up beside the two, treated the question seriously. "How ken we that you are true shoal-kin to our brother?" rasped the swimmer, now from the free ocean side of the craft. Alekrond and Evendal moved about to face her, the King careful to keep the Sceptre's teeth between themselves and the sea-creature.
"We see Osmaredh's son grips the Spine-which-binds-us, and acknowledge its bearer's blood as that of our Spine-brother. But there are many spines afloat in your fancy-world(202). We might think you stalk us, a false supplicant. A predator from another reef entire, with your own spine poised at the soft side of this our Spine-brother. What surety had we that you were indeed of his cell? So we acted to separate you from our brother. We sought just now to lure you from his side, to expose any stinger or tendril you might have fast against him."
"Can you... serve my need?" Alekrond returned, rallying.
For the first time since the swimmer had initially emerged, ripples spread out from where she posed. "We do not share your habits of spewing for the sake of froth, foam-drinker. You called on us! Us!"
"Then... then here is proof I share his blood." Alekrond leaned over and wiped the blood from his hand onto the creature's face. The soft-seeming cheek abraded his calloused palm, and he jerked backward in surprise.
Again the swimmer lapped her tongue at her own cheek. After a moment's contemplation she responded, "The tastes are strange to us. More tainted salt than life, and unfamiliar. Bare that blood afresh for us, that we might confirm your claims."
Dismayed, Alekrond seemed to stumble, and gripped Evendal's shoulder briefly as if for support before making the effort yet again.
This time, the swimmer's response was abrupt and avid. "Yes! Would you not feed us, sweet cousin? To be awakened in this season awakens our stomachs as well. And our food sleeps too well buried until the season of storms passes." Water sloshed from her maw as she hissed in a sudden manic disposition.
Evendal shook his head vigorously in warning, reckoning the swimmer's meaning faster than a bemused Alekrond could.
"No. I would you aid me in my need, as you can."
Without answering, the woman-shaped creature twitched her head from side to side, then dropped suddenly below the surface. Ripplings and swirls detailed her manic circuits around the skiff. After several rounds that threatened the skiff's seaworthiness, the swimmer re-emerged. "The Sea is shamed, brother. We would not trespass against you and yours, not endanger you or us." Evendal let out a sigh of relief. "A further gift is yours, Spine-kin, for our temerity just now."
"And as token of this?" Evendal asked; according to his founding fathers' records, the creature's recall of favours offered was fitful at best. The creature smiled, a disturbing sight, and with a childlike three-fingered arm removed a jewel from between her mass of tendrils and tossed it into the boat. Alekrond watched the gem settle against the senseless Minfal, and Evendal motioned for him to return his attentions to the water.
"We need the man, to find the man-child," the swimmer intoned.
Alekrond blanched. "Won't that give away our not being kin?" he whispered to Evendal.
The swimmer answered. "The protocols in our accord -- governing the confrontation of two such sovereigns as we are -- have been met, land-urchin. What has just passed merely affirms you are of your whale-king's pod. In truth, we know you two are kith but not kin. We are not simple men-o'-war, to buy our limbs with a cluster of our own tentacles. Nor is our brother. Now, if you aspire to wind your tail about your wayward whelp again, you must entrust yourself to us. We pledge that your black-water shall remain untasted, your shell unbreached." The bell and figure submerged.
The King whispered, "The ocean-dweller's eyes do not see colour as we do. Our arterial blood appears as ink to her." His head began to ache, but his physical excitement had ebbed on its own.
"What must I do?"
"Whatever you will to."
"In two score and ten years as a seaman I have never dealt with such a dread marvel," the privateer found himself shouting. "What do I do?"
The King refused to match his volume. "I do not know. This is new to me as well."
Alekrond looked dyspeptic on hearing that. "Then how do you know as much as you do?" he hissed to his Liege.
Evendal continued sotto voce, "Osmaredh and his granddaughter left detailed narratives of their confrontations with her."
The ocean-bound figure again emerged and answered the privateer's louder query. "After we have divested ourselves, alight from your fouled leaf, from your float."
"I do not know how to swim," Alekrond shouted again.
"Descend, urchin. You have the Sea's vow, the only surety. We have made provision for your frailty."
"I will let your men know what you are about here," Evendal offered helpfully. "And that you are safe."
The privateer grabbed his King's arm. "Are you unhinged?" His mouth had dried, giving his tongue the texture of clay.
"Very likely," Evendal answered with what he hoped was a reassuring grin, and wondered what he had said or done that had betrayed him.
The privateer looked to his Liege imploringly.
The King shook his head slowly, cosseting the yet light pounding in his skull. "Heed her, my friend. You see before you merely a finger of the oldest living creature(203) I know of. Hunger or no hunger, her witnessed pledge would bind her yet, six generations hence." To the Water-borne he asked, "You know his skin is as kelp, his insides as an urchin's(204)?"
"We know, Spine-brother. Better than you, we know the nature and substance of your shells. And that he breathes this thinness even as oannhaissh (205) do. He will sleep his stay with us."
"How long a stay?"
"However long it must be, in order that we may find his pup. Your kind have a custom between subtle hunters such as we. When one hunter's weakness is not exploited but is ignored by the other, the clumsy hunter offers a further gesture of goodwill or propitiation. So do we offer you. This 'vassal' of yours is as focused as a shark on his purpose?"
"He is," Evendal affirmed.
"Then we assure that we shall not let distance, territory, or aridity impede our effort for him. We shall have him return to your malformed realm as whole and vital as he is now, to delight in his live pup's return. And thus do we hope that you will entrust yourselves to us and our avowal." She slipped under the waves quietly, then just as quietly returned.
The northernmost frills of the creature's train wiggled and churned the surface with sudden industry. "Our more plebeian vassals wait to strike your bargain, they shall keep its pollutions from tainting our home as well as your own. Our elder selves, yours and ours, devised the means by which we might keep both our realm and your own safe from such a womb of desolation as we rest upon that promontory. You may stand down, Spine-sib."
A change in the tenor of the shrieks behind him, the words previously unremarked, made it clear to the King that the bargain referred to was to be struck in Iliamarro's rescued carcass, towed surreptitiously to the Wash for ocean predators to feast upon. Though still uncertain, he twisted the stone of his ring widdershins within the recess of the Sceptre and then settled the trident beside Minfal. As Evendal and Alekrond watched, the array of sea pea and noxious blue tentacles separated from the bell of the creature and floated toward the distant coast. Along with an excess of what looked like sea-foam, thin tendrils of white remained, radiating outward from the body of the sea-sovereign.
"We have, for a time, disarmed ourselves as well. We await your attack."
Momentarily numb, the privateer nodded, thoroughly confused and whelmed.
"She means for you to descend now," the King translated, only belatedly understanding the Moonchild's sense: Whether confronting food or friend, enemy or whelp, most sea creatures dart up to it and retreat; a human would say that they habitually attack, even when aggression is not intended.
Alekrond made as though he would leap out of the dinghy, doubtless hoping to accomplish his dreadful task quickly.
"No!" the swimmer spewed. "Do not rush upon us as if you were one of those nautilus clouds that plague our shallows(206). What you ask of us requires a most... delicate arm. One easily ruined. As our home caresses yours, so must you descend." A pliable fist-shape half the size of the boat, and resembling milky green alabaster, floated up from the depths for the seaman to step down into.
Chastened but doubtful, Alekrond lurched over the side, keeping a stranglehold on Evendal's arm. The privateer's look of surprise, as he sank down only to his waist, tickled Evendal's sense. The mirth faded as alarm plastered Alekrond's face. "Jellyfish! Get me out of this!"
"No, honoured vassal(207) to our spine-sib. Do not thrash so. They but provide the sleep we promised. Else, with what must be done, your fears would evoke a permanent frenzy."
"Evendal!" Alekrond rasped out, eyes wide and face foam-white with fright and revulsion. The Swordbrother submerged, but the seaman remained mostly above water.
"Alekrond, nought can make you at ease with this. I can only say that I would trust this my Swordbrother's given word above any Guard's. As every King of Osedys has done since we first landed here."
"They... they did sting only the once," Alekrond reported, striving for calm. "But that touch... It makes me shiver worse than... Am I numbing from the cold? Or the sleep she promised? For this water is colder than Onkira's heart."
"Both, loyal urchin." The woman-form gracefully arose again.
That comment reminded Evendal of a concern he had fleetingly harboured. "By what agency can you retrieve his whelp? What if it has sought out the heavier waters more confined by reefs of fancy(208)?"
To Evendal's private alarm, Alekrond's now unresponsive frame floated on his back amidst the sea froth. Yet again the peduncle immersed herself utterly, only to emerge at another point alongside the boat. Alekrond's face remained above water, his body kept afloat, undisturbed by the Moonchild's moistenings or change in location.
"We are not only an I. We are the congress of waters given faces(209). Comprehension of all waters, flowing and still, is permitted us. Were we all in wilful concord, we could stop the rivulets flowing within your so-fragile membranes. Hunting a welkin-breathing whelp who troubles the shallows of our realm, our coastline, is a simple matter now that we can know his taste, texture, and density. The struggle will be in dragging our prey home. You sand-crabs are not reasonable."
Evendal, his headache persisting, ignored the complaint. "Shall we wait in one of the larger cockles(210) northeast of here? Or will you need more time?"
"Currents agreeing, we shall have sounded and smelt out this fortunate child of foam. If he has not found a shell to guard his softer parts and menials, we shall spew and mould one for him. We would that you wait until the Lurer(211) has sought her other crops and fields in the western deeps."
Thinking of Kri-estaul and the dignitaries that would be all but held hostage aboard ship until after sundown, Evendal baulked. "Do you advise Us for Our purpose? Or for your comfort? We shall not wait so long."
"You would prod us and provoke us? Would test our bindings? We know when the tiniest bit of brine abrades our covenant with you. We have its bounds and freedoms dangling before us, ever etched in our home and our being, so that we cannot fail in our pledge to your pod, your reefs, and their dwellers. And there it has been secreted that, though rightly fearful of the fell and horrid garden of intransigent grit you build your reefs and homes upon, we breasted it to halt the slaughter of your shoals and of our own when first you limped into our bower and thought it unclaimed. Incised in the coral of our elder selves is the truth of how we had died several times of the Lurer's fury, rendered lifeless rubble, all from striving to advance a peace between our strong and subtle selves and you sand-crabs. All from attacking the arid lands under the Lurer's wrath! Did your elder selves mark our passion? Our generosity? The terrible beauty of our death cries? We know they did not, else you would not treat with us so." She submerged again.
Evendal ald'Menam wished he had gotten more sleep, or felt more alert. He had Osmaredh's voluminous entries to guide him, and so far they had been accurate -- if limited. The one bit of minutiae that seemed most relevant was Osmaredh's written suspicion that this native sentient, while able to feint and deceive by omission in her communications, did not comprehend lying, boasting, or exaggerating, skills merchants and tinkers held as second-nature. So she meant what she said, within the limits of her understanding or misunderstanding of the language she acquired through Hramal. Anything approximating pride or arrogance that she might possess, she had in matters no human had related to as yet. This meant that she could not claim to protect an object or creature in order to later use that creature as a meal or bait. Any loss she expressed, as she did just then, had best be treated as real, imparted for reasons she would consider immediately evident -- regardless if they were at all evident to humans.
Unlike humans and other mammals, this being's surface gave no clues as to her mood or level of docility, if insult or compliment had any significance or impelled her to action. Could such an isolate sentience acknowledge and ascribe value to the land-born, creatures with hermes-stones, limits, needs, and perceptions she had few analogues for? Evendal wondered if he should expect respect from her for beasts she once could never have imagined existed. Just as his forefather had, he must assume her capable of accepting the fiction that humans had value nearly equal to hers. He had to.
When she returned, he decided to let her know that hers was not the only sacrifice made to reach this now millennia-old accord they shared. "Anymore than your elder selves saw your vassals toying with our forefathers, dragging them down into the depths where they died, as anything but the mindless and harmless play of sea calves. Or how many of our then-too-few colonists died from mortal mistakes made striving to understand you well enough to carve out a treaty with you."
The woman-form went still. In the midst of a constantly moving sea and a listing boat, the sight unnerved the weary King. For several breaths the form and her pedestal remained as fixed as an island, with waves rolling around and breaking against it.
Finally, after several cycles of Onkira's cries, movement returned to her. "We have appended to what has previously been excreted concerning you sand-crabs, in order to admit our cruelty: That our attendants had hunted what they could not stomach and without the shark's right. That our attendants encroached on your arid plains in those grotesque hunts. Such an idea and act is irredeemable."
"And I shall have it preserved for my heir, that demanding your attendance during our day is tantamount to murder. And an irrevocable dishonour."
The sea-sovereign submerged for several breaths, and then emerged. "The Lurer troubles us even now, brother. And forcing our stomach to spew your dry nothingness has done damage as well. It is barely reparable."
"Then let us attack. Can you accomplish this task during the Lurer's ascendancy and not imperil yourselves?"
"We can petition his discovery and retrieval from out of a cool nook that reinforces our will. A rill of hoary influence and sweet comfort for us. Will you take no offence if you do not see us, if we coerce smaller helpers to press the prey into your reaches? Rather than treat him as our prize morsel and goad you to snatch him from us, we would discard him as our leavings, only so that you might scavenge for him unmolested."
Evendal did not understand whom she had to 'petition' but did not want to tarry over the detail. >From what the King perceived of the concession given, Llyssh forbore her most basic indicators of self-respect for the sake of human impatience. "As the son of Osmaredh, We will know that you and no one else arranged for the whelp's return. You need not hover by the prize for Us to know whom the meal was meant for.
"But how shall you return our cleaner-fish without alarming the shoal-feeders around us?"
Before she covered herself in seawater again, she answered the King. "Within the same housing as the whelp returns in. Or in a barnacle affixed to it."
(174) As a temporal or spatiotemporal object of sensory experience.
(175) Chapter 4.
(176) Chapter 10.
(177) Osmaredh (aus-marr-edda) - The legendary founder of Evendal's family. 'Herculean' might be the correlative word that is closest to her intention.
(178) ref. Hamlet I, ii, 200 'head-to-foot'.
(179) A part of a body of water protected and deep enough to furnish anchorage; especially one with port facilities.
(180) A dock or basin providing secure moorings for boats and often offering supply, repair, and other facilities.
(181) The common Western concept of authority involves delegation; all ethical, and by progression social, authority or right to act depends on divine sanction or expectation (e.g. R. C. priesthood and the 'divine right of kings'). No Hramal 'gods' are omniscient or omnipotent. Hramal has a word-cluster that signifies 'authority by deputation or proxy', but a king generally uses a word closer to ex-ousia - authority stemming wholly from one's nature, one's being.
(182) Traditionally two meanings; anger or biliousness.
(183) Waste-rho Sirn-med-dill agdu(shewa) Ees-He-you-were-inn
1. One authorized to manage the affairs of another; an agent.
2. An employee of the Roman emperor in civil affairs, especially in finance and taxes, in management of imperial estates and properties, and in governing minor provinces.
(186) A spicy mixture of salt and wine.
(187) Dried salted and pressed mullet eggs
(189) Hramal distinguish between bravery and courage; as Evendal is testing Alekrond for courage, already assured of his bravery.
(190) ~Principle island of the Nikraan confederacy.~
(191) Obs. - a great grandfather
(192) ~Surn-meddil is being precise here, not dramatic.~ Murther, murder (which word and semantic field Tolkien appropriated for his 'veil of tears' "Mordor") = sudden death, not necessarily homicide.
(193) ~Near as I can figure, this phrase is equivalent to our 'Hobson's choice' -- an apparently free choice when there is no real alternative: Thomas Hobson (died 1631) English liveryman, who required every customer to take the horse nearest the door.
(194) ~The Renewer. A priest, related to the late royal family by a morganatic line, who restored the kingdom after the Nikraan were mysteriously slaughtered. Known as a man of grim austerity.~
(195) Etymology: Greek - one that eats, from -phagos: virus or cell that destroys cells
(196) ~Renanai - The traditional term used in edicts and treaties for the Forestdwellers in and east of Alta.~
(197) ~(Bree-ann-ian Th-lure-at-ease howl-a-mogd alta-leki. Vran-no. Vran-no, alta-leki sue-ditch-ee-air.) " I am here, widespine-brother for this sea. Come. Come but briefly, brother."
(198) The pronoun used is like hän in Finnish, third person gender-inclusive singular.
(199) ~Kaitas - a word referring to a whale's size, not its nature(oannhaiss). An intentional exaggeration, the aquatic equivalent of Onkira's status.
(201) ~Likely caused by phentolamine, or prostaglandins, and either some species-created form of skullcap's components (Scutellaria lateriflora) or a barbituric organic compound such as butalbital.~ Ocean-dwellers incorporate a different set of naturally occurring defence mechanisms that are highly sophisticated.
(202) ~This ocean-dweller sees the world above the surface as a poisonous mirror of her own, more illusion than substance.
(203) ~Living-breathing - a single word.
(204) That the fragile shell is yet tougher than the insides
(205) ~Oannhaiss - tenders - whales.
(207) Cleaner-fish - Labroides dimidiatus.
(208) ~I.e., rivers bounded by dry land.
(209) ~That one statement was rendered in archaic Hramal-renan - in which 'water' and 'face' is idiomatically in plural form. My translation is likewise somewhat archaic in the meanings of every word used, else this paragraph would be essay sized.
(210) ~The word is either cockle or conch.
(211) ~The Sun.