24 March 2012

ELVEHELM: Eldisle IV - On the parapets

            He had been unable to sleep.  The same dream had returned again to plague him; a long, bare corridor, dusty and unused save for a single set of footprints – the marks of unshod feet – that he had been following, it seemed, forever.  He was exhausted, tired and thirsty, at the end of his strength…and at the end of the hallway, too. 

Before him, nothing but a blank wall.  Done, finished, end of the trail.  The footprints vanished here.  He had tried the wall, searching it for a hidden door, climbing up five paces to a flat, unrelieved stone ceiling, even smiting the unyielding stone until his knuckles bled – all to no avail.  The path just ended.  The footprints - left foot, right foot, left - simply stopped.  If there was more, he could not find it.  If there was another road, he could not see it. 

            He awoke from the dream, as he always did, in a sweat.  The night air had helped.  Abandoning his bed, he had taken the stairs by Kalena’s scriptorum, climbing the stone steps past her study, until they encountered the wooden trap that led to the pinnacle of the watch-tower, the highest point of the city of Joyous Light.  Once atop the tower, he had leapt lightly up onto one of the merlons, kneeling, folding his hands upon his thighs, letting his thoughts drift upon the night breeze, struggling to focus, to empty his mind; to seek the comfort of nothingness, and maybe – just maybe – to banish the terror that had come upon him; the possibility that he had reached the end of his master’s teachings, and could not see where next to go.  And the fear that there was no ‘next’; that there was nothing more.

            He didn’t realize how long he had knelt there until he heard the voices wafting up from below.  He cracked one eye, and saw that the western horizon was colouring – a dull, orange-yellow glow that presaged a gloomy day, and foul weather ahead.  At the same time, the pain in his knees told him exactly how long he had been kneeling on the rough stone.

            “I must,” a woman said urgently.  She was speaking the elven tongue – the peculiarly-inflected, idiomatically unique variation thereof that, according to Breygon, was the dialect of the High Elves’ court.  He could not understand it with his ears; instead, he listened with his whole being.  Meaning came through where words did not.

            He recognized the voice at once.  It was the princess, Myaszæron.  Breygon’s aunt.

            “You must not,” a male voice replied in a harsh whisper.

            Joraz started.  The second speaker was Kaltas.

            “I cannot betray you like this!” Myaszæron insisted, speaking softly but firmly.  “We know the truth now!  Your daughter did nothing wrong.  She defended my grandmother’s right, her person even, as well as any soldier of the High Guard might have done.  She defended the world itself, and defeated an abomination of terrible power, and fell in battle, like a heroine of old! Like her namesake, Fineleor, or Antaissin, or...or Holy Miros herself!  She deserves recognition - a hero’s tribute!  Not the hushed, hurried how-d’ye-do farewell of a common…”

            “Stop!” Kaltas snapped.  “This is not about right, but about duty!  You know your obligations in this matter as well as I! 

            “You are not here by your own accord,” he continued in an intent growl, “but by the Queen’s fiat.  Not as ‘little Mya’, who used to leave snakes in my bed at the Palace, but as Her Royal Highness, the Princess Myaszæron Æyllian.  Flora regia, the verdant jewel in the crown!  A mighty warrior of the realm, a divine servant of Valatanna, and the queen’s ambassador to my poor domain.  Your duty, regina mea, is wholly clear. 

“My daughter…” He paused, sighing.  “Ally, Hara and Miros guard her, stands condemned by the crown, proscribed by royal command.   Treason is no light charge.  The queen’s condemnation taints me as well, and Jianni too, and all of Eldisle by association.  Until my daughter’s innocence is proved, no one of royal blood may show countenance or kindness to me or mine.”

“All true,” the princess said quietly.  “And all unjust.”

“Unjust or no, it is the law,” Kaltas sighed.  “ You may attend the Dapis Adfarum - in fact, I beg you to come as my guest, for I will need you there - but not this morning’s celebration.  You must not.  The queen cannot be seen grieving for the passing of a traitor.  Not even through an envoy.

“You are my friend, Mya.  But under the law, until the queen’s proscription is lifted, you must be my jailer first.”

Moving carefully, so as not to dislodge any loose stones, Joraz peeked over the stone lip.  Ten paces below him, a narrow balcony faced southwards, looking out over the Sunlit Sea.  The first glimmers of dawn were gilding the breakers as they crashed into the wooded island just offshore – the island, the monk remembered, that the wizard Kalestayne had reputedly made for Alrykkian, the Duke’s lifemate, the woman who the poor man would have to eulogize in just a few hours.

“The law is cruel,” Myaszæron murmured.  “I should be beside you.  The queen’s envoy should stand with you, Kaltas Aiyellohax, an old and most excellent servant of the throne, in such a sad hour.  To honour the sacrifice of your daughter, your lifemate, and your oldest friend.”

“And Alorestes,” Kaltas said distantly.

The princess nodded.  “Yes.  All of whom gave their lives in the defence of the realm.”  She took a deep breath.  “If I am here as my grandmother’s envoy, then how can I stand apart, pretending not to see, while you must bid farewell to four who died defending not only the Filigree Throne, but the world itself?”

“It is because you are her envoy,” Kaltas replied heatedly, “that you must stand apart, and remain silent.  If you give voice to your sentiments, however honest and true they may be, you dishonor your grandmother, and you dishonor the fallen.  And,” he added bitterly, “by our laws, you dishonor me.”

“Damn our laws!” the princess hissed.

Kaltas turned to look at her.

The pair stared at each other for a long moment.  Joraz held his breath, wondering whether the princess would defy her host’s request.  But at last, she bowed her head.

“Thank you, highness,” Kaltas said gently.  “Believe me, I wish that propriety allowed you to be there with us.  I know what is in your heart.”

He bowed deep, then spun on his heel and left, departing through a door that Joraz could not, from his present vantage, make out.  An instant later, his boot-heels clattered on the stairs.

The princess stared after him.  Then she turned to look out over the sea, leaning on the parapet before her.  After a moment, she gave vent to a heavy sigh. 

“Ah, my good lord,” she whispered to the sea breeze.  “If only you did.”