The calm of the last few evenings was whimpering to a close in a bruised and brooding sky just outside Maybourne Castle. The figure of a man with strong, broad shoulders and long stringing brown hair advanced into the gusting salt-sea wind, his blue and white robes billowing wildly. The seven grey robed acolytes that filed behind him looked fearfully into the darkening sky. A few searched the faces of their companions for comfort but only found deepening fear. Only one young acolyte remained stoic, unmoved by the threatening storm and the slow, vicious thunder that increased and swelled in volume as it rolled in like the waves that crashed low in the tide before them.
Sagesse Ducréateur, in his simple grey vestment, advanced with his head down, deeply and calmly contemplating his impending fate. Also among the fearful priestly initiates was Malthus Rostern; he who remembered so vividly and so angrily the war-torn past of Westend.
Onward their blue and white clad master advanced into the very edge of the sea and kneeled there in the crashing surf, leaning into the waves as they tried to force him bodily back from their depths. He screamed his loud prayer like a defiant taunt against nature itself. He remained steadfast, unmoved by the broiling force of the waves. Then began the lightning, first crisscrossing the sky along an invisible geometric grid, and then a massive bolt suddenly struck the brine directly before the blue and white cardinal, instantaneously raising a deafening crackle of thunder, sending cries of shock and horror from the acolytes who had aligned themselves on the sandy shore behind him. Steam rose from a gigantic cavern of vaporized sea where the bolt had struck, and the surf drew far back from the cardinal to fill the void, water rushing violently into a leviathan crater in the ocean.
The cardinal yelled back to his acolytes to advance into the temporarily revealed sand from which the waters were receding. Each acolyte was clasping a small conch shell. One tall, lanky, and trembling boy frantically kneeled to snatch his shell up from the sand where he had dropped it in his fright. The seven grey robed acolytes rushed forward to the new edge of the receding sea and kneeled with their master. Shackles attached to long chains that had waited beneath the water’s surface now lay out next to each acolyte’s ankle. They hastily shackled themselves to the long chains that extended to distant boulders protruding from the ocean floor as the wall of water continued to gather and rise in the nearby horizon.
In between rolls of thunder, the vacuum of silence that was left where there had always been crashing waves heightened every acolyte’s senses. The seven grey robed figures shackled to the bottom of the sea turned around toward the water, each as best as he could in his weighty restraints, to view the spectacle of the mountain of ocean gently swelling into the sky. Gravity was an angry god that had been briefly deprived of its greatest possession. It reclaimed control of the water and began to pull it back down into the seabed, rushing at the seven acolytes with all the weight of the world as its fuel. The preliminary splashes were relatively small but powerful. The boys were soon dragged down by the rushing waves and the weight of their heavy, sodden robes. Then the wall of water ground toward them like an avalanche and a falling sky all in one apocalypse.
The top of the wave crested and seemed to hover in the air directly over their heads. Sagesse Ducréateur and Malthus Rostern could hear the calm chanting of most of their companions. They also heard the frantic screaming of the one tall, lanky acolyte who was chained between them, just a stone’s throw away from each.
Then the crushing wave was upon them, and there was only blackness, pain, something hard and rough dragging against Sagesse’s flesh. He felt saltwater rush into his nose and mouth and press with enormous force into his ears and eyes. He struggled to remain conscious, but could not be sure if the black weightlessness he felt was a terrible reality or a dying dream. There – The pain of the rocky ocean floor scraping the flesh from his leg. That was something real. His left calf and thigh were both burning, open wounds in the salt sea, and a sharp stab in his lower back told him that he had been bashed against the rocky ocean floor and dragged across its sharp edges by the force of the tidal wave that his master had summoned. He opened his eyes, or perhaps they had been open but useless in the deep. For somehow he sensed a dim green light in one direction, and willed himself toward it, swimming, flailing, surviving just to gasp in a lungful of seawater.
It has been a world of conflict in the past, but the blood that stained the fields has long since washed into the soil. One man remembers it thusly: Malthus Rostern recalls a time when men rushed by cowering women and children, setting fire to everything in sight, killing to satisfy some angry demon within. Malthus remembers the northern border of the Kingdom of Westend writhing back and forth like a giant serpent in the throes of agony; finally put to death by a treaty that allowed the seaside towns to be divided as spoils of war. The world began to revolve around ships and ports. Farmers could no longer produce enough food to feed their neighbors, but they had plenty to ship out for a profit. Money ruled every man, and if a neighbor couldn’t pay the same price as someone far across the sea, then he and his should starve. Many men became poor, and a few became filthy, filthy rich. All of the money in Westend seemed dirty to Malthus Rostern.
But that’s in the past. Today the kingdom has put aside worldly things and turned to the Source. The ruler has turned us all to the Source, actually. His is the only religion openly practiced in Westend and several of the surrounding kingdoms. There are, of course, different ways to interpret religion, different ways of seeing the world, but all who speak of religion openly, recognize that the Source rules above all else; over man, over kings, over nature itself.
It had been arranged that the royal court of Aléman would visit the court of Westend. The conflicts brewing between the neighboring kingdoms needed to be put to an early rest to avoid bloodshed. Memories of wars past lingered bitterly on the tongues of the powerful old men, and the rulers were already beginning to become more mutually agreeable.
Two Kings, two queens, and hoards of supporting lords and ladies from both countries had gathered in the great hall of Maybourne Palace in Westend. The royal families were represented as fully as possible. The Maybournes of Westend boasted three princely sons while Aléman’s royals had only a solitary princess to show for their heir-apparent generation. King Maybourne’s oldest son was the only face missing. He was expanding the royal empire into a new world across the sea. Even the youngest son of King Maybourne, the idiot son, was there, embarrassment to the crown though he was. And the final son, the middle son, a thorn in his father’s side, was already sizing up the situation though the promised fortnight of festivities had only been underway for a few hours.
Forlorn and foreign music wafted through the air from a solo melodic voice and a single accompanying lute. The voice was unusually high pitched for an adult man, but gorgeous and captivating, with a slightly distant accent. The lyrics told a story of lost love, of the pain of separation, the human need for companionship, understanding, affection, quarreling. The need to reconcile, laugh loudly together, cry softly in one another’s arms, calmly listen, watch one another think, sleep, dream, and quietly breathe. And the melody itself told each body to close its eyes and leave the physical world behind.
Amidst the exotic waves of music, Prince Aiden Maybourne II sat stiffly in a very fancy, straight-backed chair, the sort with cushions so thin that the perceptive buttocks could detect the exact species of wood under the velvet. He looked around the hall at the few hundred lords and ladies who were shifting uncomfortably in their identical seats wearing identical expressions with identical pains in their posteriors. Everyone was at once both suffering and enrapt by the music, shut off from the world. Except two restless souls.
Handsome Prince Aiden saw two glistening eyes open. Their owner leaned slightly forward, her gaze darting down the row of seats to her right. She apparently decided that no one important was watching her because silently, with the grace of a cat, she stood and tiptoed swiftly toward an exit. No one else seemed to mind, or notice for that matter. But there was a bit of the cat in the Aiden as well, so he followed his curiosity. She was a step out of the hall before he could even react.
Marqsam, another young man who was somewhat underdressed for the occasion, spurted, “It’s what?” as the young prince’s knee collided with his own, momentarily bringing Marqsam back to reality. Aiden was slightly less agile than his prey.
“Shhh. Just a private moment – fresh air,” whispered Aiden, and then he too was off. After he passed through the mammoth doorway that led from the enormous recital hall into the hallway, he picked up speed. He saw the shadow of her curling black hair wisp around a distant corner. After a burst of excitement, he chided himself and relaxed to a quick walk, realizing that he had been accelerating into a jog. It wouldn’t do to chase down a beautiful lady like a peasant flapping after a nervous goose. And after all, he knew something about that corner that she did not. The closer he got, the more quietly he crept. She could not have gone far. Softly, he rounded the corner
There she stood in her ornate gown, lightly panting with secret liberty. She let out in a surprised gasp, “I’ll do as I please,” when her handsome pursuer appeared.
“I can see that,” he smirked, raising the left corner of his mouth into a becoming smile and looking deep into her clear, dark eyes.
She narrowed them saying, “What do you want?”
“I – I’m not really sure… I’m sorry,” he admitted with a short, confused bow, and turned to leave, cursing himself under his breath. He was not usually turned away.
“Wait,” she exhaled, and froze him. “Do you want to explore this place with me? What do you suppose is in there?” She indicated the double doors behind her by resting the perfect curve of her back against them and turning her eyes up toward the door’s distant top.
“There’s one way to find out.” Aiden searched her alabaster face hoping her motivation might become apparent but realizing he had not enough experience examining faces to read such a complex creature. He saw only his probing gaze returned. “It’s easy enough to open, if you know how.” He demonstrated that he did, and slid past her, brushing unnecessarily close to her as he passed through the massive portal. He could smell something sweet on her or on her breath as he surreptitiously inhaled the luxury of her presence. Then he strode confidently into the room, and she followed, closing the double doors behind them, leaving them to the near obscurity of the candlelit chamber within. They were in a world of their own.
She was all delighted curiosity. “What do you suppose this place is?”
Prince Aiden Maybourne then realized that she had no idea who he was. Of course this was no great advantage because he had no idea who she was either. He may as well keep his identity to himself though, for now.
“Well here’s a harpsichord, or some such thing,” he offered. “I suppose it can only be a music room of some sort. Private performances, don’t you suppose?”
“Do you play?”
“I – not – I don’t really know any songs, but I am familiar with… the keys.”
She walked to the pleated-velvet covered bench that sat in front of the instrument and arranged herself and her ornate gown upon it in a dignified fashion, saying, “Why don’t you teach me something about it? And you may call me Christiana.”
“Christiana,” he savored the word. It was the name perfectly fit to this dark flower of a woman, mysterious, impulsive, everything that a young prince would dream of, and nothing safe or appropriate or nearly as formal as she appeared.
“And your name?”
“The tide is low,” spoke the cardinal, his voice threateningly soft and hoarse. The acolytes scrambled on sandy hands and knees, clawing their way as far as their chains would allow them to retreat up the wet beach sands. Their heavy robes darkened in the salty saturation of the ocean. Malthus, Sagesse and the rest of the acolytes coughed and spit out the salty ocean water. They had all been brutalized by the waves and the rocks of the deep but none worse than Sagesse. The lower left side of his wet robes was darkening all the more where his wounds spilled onto them, growing soggy red-black patches. Their instructor continued, “You will each have your unique task, and you will each contemplate it and work it on your own. When you’ve inscribed your solution into the sands, your chain will fall free, and you may ascend the cliff steps to claim your white robes.
“The ceremony will begin if and when the first acolyte arrives, and will continue for three days. Within two days, the tide will have swelled to obscure the sand at your fingertips. Within three, your chains will not permit you breath. You will reach us before the end of the ceremony, or you will cease to be. This is your final test. You will ascend to the ranks of the bishops, or you will be consumed by the sea. These present hours you will realize your destiny; to serve the Source, or to be reclaimed by It.”
Sagesse was peering up into the moonless sky when a vellum tube fell onto the sand before him. He picked it up and a soft wave quickly smoothed his fingerprints from the sand. The acolytes had learned to strengthen their memory and their skills by writing equations into the sand, trying to solve them before the waves washed them away and trying to remember all of the equation, rewrite it, work it out completely before the next wave could clean the inconstant slate again. This time the stakes were much higher.
They began. Malthus, and several other acolytes pulled frantically at the caps of their vellum tubes, desperate to read the problem within. What kind of problem? What equations? How many formulas would be required? And their careless haste slowed them all the more. Only Sagesse remained calm. Sinneff, the lanky trembler, squeaked in quiet horror as water trickled into his tube, but he rescued the paper from it and was squinting and turning the blurry figures in his hands, whimpering, “Why why why…”
Sagesse, all in calmness, unrolled his scroll and tossed the vellum container aside. The water played with it, taking it in and then rolling it back up on the sand repetitively like a bored and lazy child with an old toy. He read the numbers and figures with purposeful determination. He began to make sense of it. He began to decipher the intent of the question and to scratch some notes in the sand with the tip of his small conch shell. Something bothered him. Often Sagesse had felt this way when a mentor was introducing a new idea, one closely related to a lesson he already knew. It was the feeling that one small difference was going to foil his trusted methods. The rows and columns of mathematical figures were enormous and complex, long convoluted strings of numbers and signs, but each separate part was something familiar to him. What was it that seemed out of place? To his right, the lanky trembler moaned and growled an ineffectual growl of frustration as the waves washed away his frantic work.
Sagesse comforted his fellow acolyte, saying “Calm precision, every step. You know this, Sinneff,” more to restore quiet than to comfort him. Sagesse returned to the beginning of his own problem, searching methodically, trying to isolate the bother – that thing that made it all seem wrong. After a few minutes of writing, another wave cleared the slate, and Sagesse used the opportunity to rewrite some of his figures in a clearer, simplified format – simpler to the mind of a calcumancer, but in each new rendition, further incomprehensible to any other man.
The waves of frustration washed in to refresh the sandy surface many times, and the cloud cover rolled away to reveal an awesome array of stars, breathtaking in their beauty. But the calcumancer acolytes could only appreciate them for the light they shed on their incessantly renewing work surface. But after three or so hours’ passage, Malthus Rostern shattered the calm with a shout. Most of the priestly students looked his way as he splashed toward the dry sand and then ran cheering toward the stairs that led up the cliff-side from the beach.
Malthus skidded to a stop in the sand at the foot of the steps and shouted back to the others, most of whom still stared after him as he made his grand exit. “Célébrez Hilay! The Source shall set you free!” And then he ran laughing and cheering all the way until his vocalizations became laborious and winded as they faded into the distance in the night. Sagesse Ducréateur alone never looked up from his work. His concentration was impenetrable.
Time began to pass with harsh indifference to their plight, and the silver moon, somewhere far away, edged closer, bringing with it a most unwelcome tide.
Another of the bard’s songs ended, followed by a moment’s appreciative silence, the kind that ensues when something so poignant and perfect has been done that to break the stillness of contemplation afterward seems sacrilegious. Then the applause began to thunder all at once. As the grey headed bard bowed and turned, reciprocating appreciation with the audience from every side, Marqsam began to take worried note of the length of Prince Maybourne’s absence.
He stood and cast his gaze to each corner of the large hall, squinting into the distance and then searching the crowd for the prince’s face. It would be no surprise if he had taken a seat next to some innocent and overly trusting young lady, the wolf, but he was not to be found so easily. Marqsam strode quickly over to a fully armored guard and whispered something to him. The guard performed the same sequence of darting glances that Marqsam had so recently demonstrated, although with belabored, armored stiffness at the neck. He then crossed to the far side of his row of armored figures and addressed a soldier who held a blue and white helmet under his arm which must have denoted his rank by the length of its plume. Even though the helm was perched in the crook of his arm, its feather still rose to tower ludicrously over the general’s head. This was obviously a fashion confined to areas of the world where doorways were as tall as ceilings and ceiling heights were decided by far sighted architects who wished to commission overhead paintings.
As the thundering applause finally began to subside, the three men repeated their worried dance of speculation, and satisfied that the prince was certifiably missing, the general stepped over to the high platform seats of the King and Queen of Westend and whispered something in His Majesty’s ear. The king’s reaction was decidedly different from the soldiers’. His countenance fell, and he let out a visible sigh, rolling his eyes. He made a diminutive signal of affirmation with his hand, and then a sort of shooing motion to which the soldiers responded with a precision about-face and an orderly march back to the row of guardsmen. Marqsam followed. The king didn’t even so much as lean toward the stately queen. The distance between them was obviously greater than that space perceptible to the naked eye.
A small group of His Majesty’s soldiers detached, headed by the general, and marched quietly toward the main exit. Marqsam was close behind the group, the soldiers trying vainly to be quiet in all their regalia; another song was about to begin.
At the exit, the group of Westend men was met by an entourage of somewhat less formal soldiers whose black tunics had each been neatly tailored and cut to reveal the chain mail beneath in the shape of a large decorative rune across the chest. Their eyes were full of suspicion, and their leader gestured to an empty seat in the front row on his country’s side of the hall. Near the vacant chair, another king and queen, they of the northern country Aléman, wore worried frowns and followed the every motion of their own guardsmen with their eyes.
Echoes of the bard’s final chord ceased to ring through the spacious recital hall and rang only in the minds of the audience. Rapturous applause deafened everyone until they would have no further distraction from the memory of the virtuoso performance for hours afterward, save the whining ring that revealed itself when the thundering appreciation abated. The ringing in their ears would accompany them all to bed that evening.
Roscius Forsythe took a final bow with a flourish of his heavy cape. He smilingly waved and nodded his way to the exit and began the trip to his guest chamber accompanied by a foursome of Aléman guards, accepting their personal compliments and thanks with practiced but believable grace. Forsythe and the guards shared one thing in common – Aléman; home. They were all foreigners in Westend.
Finally arriving at his guest chamber door, Forsythe fumbled a bit for the proper part of the decorative door to press, but eventually it swung open lightly, and he bid good evening to his familiar Aléman guardsmen. He turned from the door with a quick step toward the harpsichord and set down his sheaf of music atop the instrument, placing the parchments right next to a candle that was melting into its final hour. With a start, he realized that he was not alone in the dim chamber, and then immediately recognized the pale countenance of Christiana seated startlingly nearby.
“Th’ource!” Forsythe exclaimed, “Your Majesty!” With a bow, he sank quickly to one knee, balancing against the lute he still clutched in his left hand.
Both at once, the Prince of Westend and the Princess of Aléman said sullenly, “You may rise,” and then their heads snapped toward one another with sudden realization. The bard immediately recognized the humor of the situation; neither of the youths had realized that the other was royalty. Forsythe’s unique and awkward laugh had just begun to escape his lips when he realized it implied disrespect and failed utterly to hide his amusement. His face contorted into a lopsided and constipated grin. Against his will, the ridiculous laughter burst forth again, and he sank back down into a deep bow in an attempt to mix overt respect into his obvious disrespect, hoping for a happy medium, but delivering a giggly, percolating cackle.
In the sand, frantic scratchings were repeatedly erased by waves and then recreated by each of the six remaining acolytes. Their sleepless concentration was aided by the rhythmic sounds of the sea on an otherwise quiet shore. Fear for their lives pried open their eyes and whitened their knuckles as they dragged the tips of those conch shells through the moist sand searching the ends of their knowledge for some numeric relationship between obscure figures.
At almost the same moment during the second day, two other acolytes found their answers and were freed of their chains to scramble in exhaustion up onto the dry sand. One of the freed boys crawled forward and encouraged the other to move on. They went on weary hands and knees to claim their prize. Only a few hours later the fourth of the seven acolytes found his solution. The chains dropped and he dragged himself along the same wet, sandy path as the others, calling thanks to above.
When that second day’s sun was sinking into the sea at the horizon, there were three boys left shackled in the ocean, and the steadily heightening waves were leaving less and less time for writing in the gritty, brine saturated surface. The water more often lingered high around their throats and tried to drag them back out to sea.
Sinneff, tired and sobbing, allowed himself to float face up on the water, now trembling from exhaustion as well as fear. He cried out to the Source and then lost all control of speech, groaning and crying, mingling his own salty tears with the waves. Soon his cries grew silent or blurred into the rest of the noises that the other two acolytes had learned to ignore to preserve their concentration.
Finally, in the black of a cloud covered night, one more acolyte was freed. It was nearly impossible to see anything in the pitch, and he called out to the remaining two.
“Sagesse! Sinneff! The last hours are upon us. I am freed!”
The crest of a wave washed over Sagesse before he could answer, and the boy on the shore continued to cry out to them. There was no answer from Sinneff. Finally Sagesse was able to bellow a reply.
“I am still here.”
“Sagesse, I don’t understand it. You were the best of us. You were a tutor to us all. What has happened? Why have you not answered your task?”
“My answer lies at the end of an infinite arc.”
“The end of an infinite… It makes no sense.”
The boy turned to sulk up the stairs in exhaustion, stopping every few steps, but refusing to crawl. He called back to Sagesse one last time, and when he spoke his voice hung in the hot, moist night air with the permanency of moss hanging on a stone wall.
“Saj’… You were the best of us.”
There was a crash of waves and a gasp before the reply. “I’m not yet dead.”
Roscius Forsythe was a man of unique talents. His voice was one, of course, his ability with instruments of every kind, his riveting storytelling. But he had one talent that was nothing short of supernatural. At a very young age, he began to sing songs that no one around him had ever heard, often songs written with a mature understanding of music far beyond his years. The strange talent continued, and from time to time as he grew, he would run across a bard singing one of these foreign tunes in a local pub. In fact, he eventually realized that he never heard a single song that he didn’t already miraculously know by heart. He was never able to satisfactorily explain the phenomenon.
The fantastic benefit of this ability is that news is generally carried from one community to the next by bards. Roscius was not only the most rewarding bard to hear in musical ability, he was also the only one who knew absolutely all the news that was fit for song. His first youthful “clairaudience” was about Westend, King Maybourne; war in a foreign land. He had always dreamt of going there, visiting the mysterious land of his boyhood fantasy. His visit to Westend to perform in the great hall of Maybourne Palace was the realization of a life-long dream. He had already a few grey hairs before it could be realized, but recent events only deepened his fascination with the politics of Westend the more.
Old King Maybourne lived upon a hill,
And it overlooked a valley past the end of his great will.
Old King Maybourne bid his men to kill,
Put the valley men in graves where he rules o’er them still.
Maybourne Castle is built of giant stones,
And it’s said that there are cellars where the giants rest their bones
Maybourne Castle was built by giant men,
And the Source is all that keeps them from reclaiming it again…
Old King Maybourne lived upon a war,
And he took that war to places that had never fought before,
Old King Maybourne ventured to the shore,
And he overtook the palace that he ruled from ever more.
Maybourne Castle is built of giant stones,
And it’s said that there are cellars where the giants rest their bones
Maybourne Castle was built by giant men,
And the Source is all that keeps them from reclaiming it again…
When the sun rose on the third day, there was almost no time left between crashing waves for writing. Sagesse had been awake for too long, and dream figures were starting to creep into his work. The irony of his thirst in the midst of the drowning waters held no humor for him. He was now flailing in the ocean swells to survive physically, and had barely any time to concentrate. He still felt his conch firmly in his grasp, but another rolled past him in the mourning waves – probably Sinneff’s.
As the third day of his test wore on, the water rose to a level that no longer allowed him to reach the beach. Soon the sun was high enough and bright enough to penetrate the water and restore blurry vision to his tired and stinging eyes. He was held under the waves for long periods, and coughed and choked when his head broke the surface briefly. Images floated through Sagesse’s mind as he himself floated deliriously beneath the surface. He clawed and pulled desperately at his chains, and then, in the underwater fuzziness, he could see the floating silhouette of Sinneff, tethered to the ocean floor, arms and legs spread out and tangling in his robes, and bobbing in the currents. The lifeless body twisted and tugged at the taut chain, and the red wound where the shackle gripped his ankle had ceased to bleed. A halo of sunlight surrounded him and shot spidery slivers of light in every direction from the corpse.
Sagesse held his breath and stared calmly at the silent, morbid beauty of the scene. The visions in his head began to fall into order. The water around him was made of something – of other familiar things. He began to understand the composition of the water itself. He saw that it was made partly of the very thing he needed, the part of breathable air that he was going to die without. And the power that held that air into this deadly liquid surrounding him was the energy of the Source itself. In that breathless little eternity he understood the power of the Source, the connections, the numbers and relationships of the finest components of water and salt and air. Then his lungs ceased to burn, and he breathed the water in freely. He no longer struggled to find the surface. Sagesse was certain that there was more water in his lungs than air. He washed in calmness, no longer struggling against the chain that bound him to the ocean floor.
It had been nearly two weeks since Marqsam had embarrassed two sets of royal families and Roscius Forsythe by bursting into the music chamber during the frantic room to room search. He had been accompanied by members of both royal guards. Aiden and Christiana had been whisked away at once. But it seemed that all was quickly forgiven and forgotten, and the peace talks resumed.
The prince and princess were both enthralled by Roscius the bard. Marqsam kept company with them as well and had spent a great deal of time talking only with Roscius to avoid interrupting the blossoming love between his princely friend and Princess Christiana. These were careless days of youthful freedom for the young royals and even old, grey Roscius felt like it was the spring of his life in the presence of these vibrant friends. The best of times was upon them.
On one occasion, Aiden was strolling past a fountain in the palace water gardens in the company of Marqsam and Roscius. The three men were discussing foreign places. Marqsam was always asking about the exotic lands that Roscius must have seen in his travels, and Roscius was always game to regale him.
“Oh, interesting certainly. In fact, I recall one seaside town that had a very interesting pub. It was the sign hanging over the door out front that was most intriguing, actually. This sign was a well weathered sculpture, wooden, of a naked woman. She had been a vision of perfection once, more beautiful even than any of these marvelous fountains and statues here in this garden. She was originally attached to the bow of a ship and had washed ashore after a shipwreck. But she had been used as a sign over the door of this pub for many years before I ever saw her.
“Her appearance detailed her tortured history. She had been burned mostly black, had her left foot hacked off by an axe, and shot with several arrows – the shaft of one still broken off and jutting from her side. She had been dragged through the street behind horses and submerged in the town well. She had been cut down numerous times from her sign post chains, and she bore the crushing marks that the hard earth at the entryway to the pub left on her knees and elbows when she fell. Her previous adventure as a pirate ship’s ornament and then an attractive piece of driftwood had left her with seafaring scars and ocean smoothed cracks too. But still the gorgeous shape of her, the curve of her breast, the detail of the dimples in her lower back, the perfect but blackened face – her beauty still shown through. She was still a vision, and every time she was cut down and defiled, that virtuous barkeep found her and put her back up. Just the way she was found. Each time. He could hire no artist who could do her justice in repair at any rate, and the scars began to become her. They showed the barkeep’s defiance against his trespassers, and he liked that, I think. It turns out that – here comes thy love!” Roscius broke off from his story to greet Christiana, and Aiden greeted her with smiling kisses. His now familiar touch did not, however, have its usual effect.
There was a grave pallor to Christiana’s cheek, one ill fitting her age and beauty. And there was a new and dark knowledge in her eyes yearning and dreading to be shared; a waiting secret that would touch the prince’s heart the way flame touches the moth. The couple excused themselves from Marqsam and Roscius as they began their own private walk through the gardens.
“What troubles you, love?” the sight of her pain began to mist his own eyes, but he managed a steady, worried scowl. A sob was the best Christiana could give in explanation to Aiden’s concern. He pulled her into his chest, and she dissolved into tears in his arms. He held her tight against himself and his gaze fell onto the passing forms of the two kings who walked side by side at the far end of the garden. King Maybourne paused a moment his cold eyes falling on his son. Then the king’s icy gaze went right on through him as if Aiden wasn’t even there – was already gone. The tragedy of the scene moved him not. The monarchs continued their businesslike stroll in political conversation.
CHAPTERS OMITTED: SOLO ADVENTURES
Dearest and most silently faithful Christiana,
I write once again in futility, knowing that you will not, cannot answer. It has been months since I have heard a word of you from anyone, and the distance between us is so heartlessly vast. Has not this world the compassion to fold in upon itself, to close up the gap between us and let love pass freely and rightly between our yearning lips? These messages to you lately have become a journal, serving only to set my thoughts down in writing, probably never to be read. The messengers I send to you no longer return with even word of your whereabouts. And since I am uncertain that you have received a single word from me, I repeat much that you may well know of my two years away.
My exile to this island would seem heaven if only it were in your presence. I have grown accustomed to the oppressive heat, and I have taken on many of the habits of the islanders to cope with the weather. As I have mentioned, the islanders subsist through agriculture, and the sugar-rum which they make from the cane that they grow here warms my body from within in a way that makes the heat of the sun seem comfortably equal to the heat of my own body. On hot days we all drink for comfort, and on cool nights we drink to warm up. It is a magical elixir for comfort and carelessness. It helps me to cope with the loss of you and all of those whom I love and miss.
I am thankful for the company of Marqsam. He is as true and honest a friend as any man could wish for. I do not doubt his devotion to me, but it is obvious that the island life suits him perhaps better than life in the palace ever did. He sleeps off a daily drunkenness and spends his evenings at gambling – lives for it as he always did. I still receive a stipend from the king my father every few months, and it is enough to cover Marqsam’s debts when he is faring poorly. He is o’ergenerous when he is doing well and at those times he will not allow me to pay for anything from my own purse. In the end I believe it all works out. If I have lent him more than he has repaid, then we are even for his willingly following me into exile here. In mutual gratitude, we will leave debt-claiming to people who keep such accounts.
The islanders here are a beautiful people, dark of skin and sharp of tongue. Their conversation is mainly consistent of playful jabbing, smiling fighting-words. I have grown accustomed to so many strange things these two years exiled. No men and few women wear anything to cover their upper body, although the men tend to be even more tantalized by the mystery and forbiddance of the covered women than the brazen revelation of the playful girls. It seems that the girls begin covering their breasts later in life, quite some time after they have developed womanly figures.
You would giggle endlessly to see me now. I have taken to wearing the local clothing woven from long strips of leaves from a brightly colored crop plant called mumbaye. They weave of it a funny sort of breeches that come only to the knee and terminate in the long ragtag strips of the unwoven portion of the leaves. The end effect is that a new pair of the breeches surrounds its wearer’s knees with a skirt of fluffy strips, which used to look quite comical to me, but I have grown accustomed to it. Women and men alike wear this fashion.
The other thing that makes the style here so humorous is a side effect of the plant itself of which the breeches are made. It seems that the plant is multifunctional, being also a potent and enjoyable leaf for smoking. The strips of mumbaye can be wound into a long cylinder and lit to create a strong sweet aroma and a thick colorful smoke; so many different and bright colors available of this plant and each with its own bright smoke. Inhaling the vapors has proved to be a very enjoyable experience. Smoking the mumbaye raises ones awareness amazingly, so I always make use of it when I play at cards (which is nearly every day since I am in the company of Marqsam). Such a strange plant. The ashes of it tend to stick together and retain their shape as it burns, so the ubiquitous cylinders of ash can be found stacked together anywhere that people have gathered. I’m afraid that I have become accustomed to spending every day and night in alternating states of drunken numbness and anxious super-awareness as I pass endlessly between the prevailing effects of the sugar-rum and the mumbaye vapors. Life is a strange and endless dream on this island. I drink to lose the pain of your absence and I smoke mumbaye just to feel something again.
Because of the plant’s special properties, people here often tear the ragtag strips of mumbaye from their pants legs and smoke them. This has the humorous effect of leaving many islanders pants in a haphazard state. Some start with one knee and smoke it completely away before beginning on the bushy skirt around their other knee. Others smoke from the backs of the legs first or some seem to smoke their own pants completely at random, leaving a well worn pair to resemble the scalp of a balding old man.
Another oddity on the island is the sugar-rum butterfly. The butterfly bears on its wings the exact insignia of the label of the rum bottles. I had thought ever since I saw them that the label was copied from the butterflies’ appearance, but I have learned an island fable which I am beginning to believe. It seems that the labels for the sugar rum have been the same on this island for more than a thousand years, and the butterflies have taken to nesting among the discarded labels. The little papers are torn from the tops of the bottles where they cling to the cork and thrown to the sea by careless drunks, myself included, and have been used so for all the thousand and more years the rum has been produced here. The labels collect in several locations along the coast to form clusters of identical red and white papers, some places a small clump, other places a hundred foot long stretch of unused and littered coastline. The butterflies hatch among the labels and the seabirds feed upon them as they hatch and first begin to use their wings. Some of these butterflies are so remarkably similar to the labels, however, that they seem even to my own eye only to be the flapping of a sugar-rum label in the wind. The local legend says that the butterflies have come to resemble the rum labels, but I wonder if the rum labels have not come to resemble the butterflies.
At any rate, the mumbaye fields are full of these little creatures, and when the islanders go to the fields in the harvest season, thousands of these little butterflies take to the air in a swarm that is half beautiful and half frightening by its sheer size – what a volume of life on the wing. There must be tons of tiny living bodies in flight when first the fields are disturbed. It is a truly eerie sight.
Also in my company here is the quiet priest, Sagesse Ducréateur. I do not claim to understand his ways, but he has proven to be an interesting companion. He spends far too much time in quiet contemplation or scribbling at numbers and symbols to provide much of a conversation, but I feel his watchful eye is a benevolent protection, and he has once or twice stepped in to diffuse a starting squabble, for which I was later sensible enough to thank him. He retains a level head in the face of cultural misunderstandings and when Marqsam or I let our gambling combine poorly with our drinking. I am thankful for him as well. It is ever so rare that I see any white man other than Sagesse, Marqsam, and myself. Just their company for mutual reminiscence of the mainland is a pitiful luxury.