World tale #2
by, 6-22-12 at 2:08 AM (293 Views)
“We appear to be running out of lands for Lysander to flee to,” said Cora. “Know you of any other lands which might interest him?”
Jot took a large drink from his cup and stared into space. “Usually, my ships return from the Nations of Heaven by sailing into the briny deep and using the hidden currents and winds to speed their way home. Twice, though, I have taken the southern route, following the coast along the bottom of the Cauldron.”
His eyes took on a distant look. “I remember the heat during the day and the strange stars at night. Each morning, before the heat became unbearable, I would climb to the very top of the mast and take out my spyglass to survey the coast, always hoping to see something other than flat plains covered with grass or clumps of brush. My heart would soar each time I spied any indicator of habitation, be it a tumbled ruin, herd of beasts, or clutch of huts. It was cause for celebration the rare few times we did find a town. No matter these settlements were invariably poor and spoke no civil tongue; we would still go ashore and trade kegs of iron nails and glass bottles for ivory and hides, and hope we did not pick up any lice in the meantime.”
He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “But there is nothing in those towns to interest one such as Lysander. He might seek out some of the other wonders of the far south such as the City of Dead Gods, the Towers of Glass, or the Great Labyrinth – but to do so, he would have to find someway to pass by the Hundred Tribes, and that would not be easy, even for him. But again, though, these wonders of the south are mere stories.”
Cora looked at him. “Not all those wonders are mere stories. The ‘labyrinth the size of a kingdom’ exists – Sir Benedict and I spent the better part of two moon cycles among its weird corridors and courtyards. It is a strange, alien place, with many bizarre objects and creatures.”
“Where is located? I had thought it east of Chou, perhaps”-
“A long ways east of Chou,” said Cora. “We reached it the other way, by crossing the Sea of Shadows to its southwestern corner, well south of the ruins of the old Agban Empire which dot the other side of the world.”
“Dot the far side of the world like plague pustules dot a corpse,” you mean, muttered Sir Benedict.
“But what business took you there?” asked Jot.
“We wished to talk to somebody.”
“Do you often travel to the far corners of the world to hold conversations?”
“If need be.”
“I see,” said Jot, fingering his beard. “Well, you appear to know a great deal of the southern half of the world”-
“Some, anyhow – the southern plains are vast.”
“Yes, they do extend for thousands of miles along the Caldron. Eventually, though, they give way in the south west to a great wooded bay separated from the plains by a tall ring of mountains”-
“The Black States,” snorted Sir Benedict. “More savages. Man eaters and demon worshippers dwelling in huts of mud and sticks. Why would Lysander go there? They have nothing.”
“On the contrary – there are many fascinating trees in those jungles found nowhere else – the finest hardwoods I know of come from there. More than once I’ve filled my holds with rubber and bamboo to be fashioned into the wondrous bicycles your artisans in Equitant invented.” Jot said. “And there is one other export from the black states which interests the empire very much.”
“Yes,” Cora sighed, “the people. The tribes sell the war captives and criminals they do not eat to the galleons of the Free Cities, who in turn sell them to the slave drivers of Niteroi. Such slavery in the present age is despicable.” Her voice rang with disgust.
“It is the way of empire,” said Sir Benedict, in a muted voice.
“It is still evil.” Cora’s voice held a tone of firm conviction.
Jot cleared his throat. “I believe we are agreed that Lysander is very unlikely to have the Black States as his destination. Perhaps we should move on.”
“All that is left to move on to is the Free Cities.” Sir Benedict said. “The empire is just to their north.”
“The Free Cities might serve as a refuge for him, though, as they have for others in the past.”
“Who calls treason ‘refuge’?” Sir Benedict said, draining his glass and slamming it on the table. “That peninsula was once part and parcel of the empire. When Emperor Plotinus gave the folk of the empire a year and a day to convert to the True God or leave, those wretched traitors left alright – and took their land with them! Time and time again the empire has sought to reclaim those lands, only to have ever more criminals, slavers, mercenaries, smugglers, runaways, free thinkers, and outcasts migrate there.”
“Lysander should fit right in, then. He is most definitely a ‘runaway’ and a ‘free thinker’.” The merchant smiled. “But the inhabitants of the Free Cities are more than mere rogues. They are also superb artisans, capable warriors, and very good mariners – second only to us Gotlander’s.”
A wry smile appeared on Sir Benedicts lips. “I will concede respect for their hoplite warriors – but they say they are the better sailors and you Gotlander’s are second to them.”
Jot shrugged. “They are entitled to their opinions, of course. But we and they both are superior mariners to those of the empire.”
“I detest sea travel anyhow,” grumbled Sir Benedict. “Give me a horse and a good road any day over a leaky boat.”
Cora frowned in thought. “Godoy is reputed to have a fine library which might attract Lysander”-
“No, he wouldn’t go there.” Sir Benedict said. “Half the city council is from the empire. Including my Cousin Raymond,” he said with a bitter smile. “He’d be on a boat in chains bound for the empire within a day of stepping through city gates.”
“What of Leuctra or Bactra, then? Both despise the empire. Leuctra has a reputation for sorcery, and Bactra’s Grand Academy is nearly as good as the University in Solace.”
“Nobody sane goes to Leuctra.” Sir Benedict said. “But Bactra, now – yes, Bactra might appeal to him. But while Lysander might visit Bactra, he wouldn’t stay – the city is a veritable den of intrigue. It would be only a matter of time until he opened his mouth at the wrong time and be forced to leave.” He thought a moment. “Actually, that would be true for him most anywhere, which is probably why he spent so long living in the woods.”
“What does that leave us, then?” Jot asked. “Save for the empire and the elf land of Sinaliel to its north, we have covered all the lands about the Cauldron.”
Cora smiled at him. “Not quite. ‘Deus Insole’ – the ‘Isle of the Gods’ at the Cauldrons center.”
Jot pulled himself up and let out a long slow breath. “Yes, there is that. And yes, I concur that it is precisely the sort of place which would intrigue the one you seek. Securing passage would be difficult even for him, though.”
“Why is that?”
“Because, my lady, nobody sails there. Instead, we sail past it. No cities remain – not since all ten thousand inhabitants of Perugia vanished thirty years ago, and the thousand colonists placed at Shell Bay by Bactra’s council all went mad. The elves have a tiny outpost off the northern tip, and we Gotlander’s maintain a supply depot on an offshore eastern isle, but no, when we sight the God Peak climbing into the sky, we turn away and do not land.”
“You’ve seen it, though. You know”-
Jot waved his hand. “Yes, I’ve seen its coast and the tall solitary peak far inland. A few times I’ve glimpsed…creatures…at a great distance, even. But no certain knowledge exists of the interior”-
A call from below interrupted him.
Sir Jot listened, and called back down. “My most humble apologies, but I must see to this.” He stood up and lumbered down the stairs.
Cora took a deep breath. “Oh, it smells like the roast is nearly done. I didn’t realize how famished I was!”
Sir Benedict stood up and walked to the window. The view showed the street outside and the roofs of the neighboring longhouses, stair stepping to the harbor below. “An Elvin Swan Ship,” he said, surprised.
“I wonder what brings them here?” asked Cora.
“Who knows with elves?” asked Sir Benedict. “A desire, a whim, a dream – it could be anything.”
A thought occurred to Cora. “What do you dream of?” she asked.
“Marriage and status,” he responded.
“Then you should have accepted the Baronesses offer in Permia,” she said, a twinkle in her eye. “She offered herself, and you would have been overlord of a city of twenty thousand!”
“True God above, no!” he groaned “Overlord of twenty thousand half frozen heathens, outcasts and marauders? There was snow on the ground when we left, remember, and all agreed it climbed nearly to the longhouse eves in the winter. Snow and ice, for ground, naught but rock to build with, and naught but fish and goat to eat – a few years of that, and I’d be leading marauders south!”
“Not true,” mocked Cora. “They grow crops”-
“Barley and roots”-
“They have trees”-
“Ha – My lances are taller than those twigs!”
“Still, she did seem quite taken with you”-
“And her cousin equally taken with you, I might add.”
Cora made a face. “You didn’t see him without his shirt! He had so much hair all over his body he looked like a bear!”
“Mayhap there was a bear in his ancestry somewhere – perhaps a bear noble because no human aristocrat would consent to dwell in such a frozen waste.”
An evil expression appeared on Cora’s face. “Still, you are a younger son of a younger son – were I to tell your father, or better yet your grandfather”-
Mock horror appeared on Sir Benedicts face “Please, don’t my lady. If my grandfather learned of that woman’s interest in me, he’d have me married to her in a heartbeat.” He grabbed her about the waist and drew her close. “No, Lady Cora, the one I wish to marry is you.”
“Me! I am no noble! My father is a commoner and my mother the bastard daughter of a Faerie Queen. That is no grounds for nobility!”
“Many noble houses have sprouted from less,” insisted Sir Benedict. “Your father’s estate in the March between Empire and Elf was acknowledged by both realms, which made him a noble in the eyes of the law”-
“That was before he murdered my mother and vanished!”
“To be fair, there are vexing mysteries surrounding your mother’s death,” said Sir Benedict “but even so, being heir to his estate granted you status enough to take Sir Gregory’s hand”-
It was the wrong thing to say. “He was poor – all he had was his horse and armor and that tiny house and then he went and got himself killed”- Her eyes started to tear up.
The knight held her close again, his chin nuzzling her brow. “Besides, as a younger son of a younger son, my marrying for romance rather than alliance is at least possible even if the legality is murky.”
Cora looked out the window to distract herself from words she’d heard all too often before. “They’re here,” she said.
“There were elves in the street outside. What would bring them here?”
“My lord and lady,” said a voice from behind them.
They turned to find one of Jots giant dark skinned servants standing there like an onyx statue wrapped in orange. He smiled. “My master bids me to tell you dinner is being served.”
The roast sat in the midst of the polished oak table, with sauce and spices dripping into the silvered platter on which it sat. Apples, pears, figs, and vegetables surrounded the roast on platters of their own, along with trays of hot bread and cheese. Large wine flagons sat at either end of the table, next to cups of cut crystal.
“See,” said Jot, one arm about his wife’s shoulder, the other waving a crystal goblet so much the wine nearly sloshed out of the top “we have dishes here from half the world before us!” He pointed at the roast “That sauce was prepared from spices my nephew brought me from the Nations of Heaven.” Next he jabbed at the pears and figs. “Those come from the fields of Cimmar.” He sat his goblet down, next to others waiting to be filled from a large decanter. “These goblets were made by the dwarves,” he said, “and the wine in them is Carbone Red from your own empire.”
“Carbone Red,” said Sir Benedict, taking one of the goblets as Jot’s stout wife filled it for him with her own hand. “I have not had Carbone Red in nearly half a year.” He took a long drink “Ah this is bliss indeed.” He started sawing away at a slab of the roast. “This is very good,” he said between mouthfuls.”
“You may thank my wife for that,” said Jot, with a gaze at the large woman by his side.
“Lady Greta, I am in awe at your culinary skills.”
The big woman blushed. “I-I have to be, what with this man brings,” she said, voice stilted and heavily accented. Clearly, her grasp of the imperial tongue was weak at best.
Cora mentioned the elves she’d seen outside between mouthfuls’s of meat, and the Swan ship in the Harbor. “Yes, yes, of course they came to me,” Jot said, taking a gulp of wine “as I am their commercial agent here in Trondi. They depart on the dawn tide with a cargo of brass trinkets from Equitant and memory globes from Sinaliel for their kin on the Isle of Mist.”
He leaned forward conspiratorially. “Those memory globes truly are astonishing – it is no wonder they bother little with marks on paper like us mere humans.”
“They are dangerous,” warned Cora “Dangerous even to trained mages and Children of God.”
“What was an elfin ship doing in an imperial port?” asked Sir Benedict, refilling his goblet for the third time.
“There is more trade between empire and elf than you might think,” said Jot, “and the industrious freemen of Equitant create wonders that even elves find interesting – all paid for with barter or favor of course, as the elves do not use coin.” He waved a hand. “I owe the elves a number of favors myself.”
Cora had just pushed her plate back when another of the giant black servants approached. “Lady Cora, Lord Benedict, your servants have come here from their errands about the city.”
“Oh!” She looked around. “I need to talk with them.”
The servant bowed. “Follow me,” he said, and led her to a small box of a chamber just inside the door. Cloaks and furs hung from pegs over boots and shoes along one wall, while her short brown skinned servant Safi and Sir Benedict’s man plain looking man Cam sat together on a stout bench along the other. The servant departed.
Safi spoke. “I am so tired!” She rubbed her legs as she talked.
“You are not the only one who’s tired,” said Cam.
“Perhaps our host will permit you some of our roast,” said Cora, feeling sympathetic.
“That would be heavenly,” said Safi, and Cam nodded as she spoke.
“What did you find?” asked Cora.
“Almost nothing,” said Safi.
“Almost,” repeated Cora. “What is this ‘almost’?”
Safi let out a sigh. “It is so uncertain – and we found nothing else to support it – but we spoke with a small child at a hillside farm, who said he saw Lysander yesterday.”
“Yesterday?” gasped Cora.
“My Lady, the report was uncertain – by a toddler no less, and then his parents took him inside, and refused to speak with us.”
“Yesterday,” Cora repeated. “He might still be in the city, then, hiding somewhere.”
“The child could easily have been confused or mistaken,” said Cam. “None of Lysander’s other associates – those who were willing to speak to us that is – admitted seeing him after a week ago.”