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Earth Chapter 4: Duty
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It was the Eve of Aging, and the Festival of Cor Blossoms was only a day away. As he had done every year since he could remember, Earth walked the Mainway, watching the merchant stalls go up. Above the colorful pavilions and new townhomes rising above them, the Mount of the Forgotten shown clearly through the crisp sky beyond.
Though the wind coming down from its slopes was not yet content to allow the balm of the sun’s rays to shine through, nothing displayed the good providence of Elusa so much as the Festival. To hear his sisters tell, once it was a trifle, little more than the occasional minstrel passing through a a near-dead crossroads beneath a failed religious shrine. Even a cursory glance belied such stories now.
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Peculiar accents salted the air. Cartloads of rigberry jam. Fantastic barrel-machines for the popping of winter dried corn. Large kegs filled with new and experimental brews. Here and there a mysterious stall battened down tight, as if afraid its secrets might be stolen in these last moments before the market’s demand. Odd clothings alive with bright colors and lively design told of the few foreigners come to celebrate.
For weeks, freed from their hibernation like the buds releasing from the hard branches of the many trees, local farmers had wended their way past the outlying mud and puddles in search of early spring trade. But today, carts and goods, servants and tenants and merchants traveling from afar, descended on the cobblestone center of town in a flux of motion and organized chaos.
This was as it should be, or so he’d always felt. Each year the signs shone brighter than the year before, and there appeared no reason why this should be any different. Once again, the Festival would rise to higher heights. The Cor Blossom Dance would be merrier. The Eve of Aging would be more marvelous. The Mayoral Address would be heartier. Betterment and joy would press forward among them as they always had, as all memories worth remembering revealed to be as constant a fact as the retreat of the snow.
There were even whispers of a most unbelievable thing. Beyond imagining. It was said that the Shadowsun himself, a living myth, was to send an official ambassador to bless with recognition Elusa’s stunning rise to prosperity. Though King of all the Ambra Coast, he had not been seen since the death of this deranged father years before. How such a tidbit of his inner counsel could have slipped out to be picked up by local newsmongers, no one bothered to question. Instead, the mere mention of the mysterious orphan-heir and Lord “Bastardking” of Ambra drew more hushed breaths with bated excitement each day the Festival drew closer.
The reign of the Shadowsun all but faded from crossroads Elusa with the death of the Madking. His lifetime, it was said, knew only peace, as had that of his father before him. But rather than rejoice in the freedom of a good rule, the aging man grew bored and anxious. Having produced no heir, his discontent overwhelmed him until, against all advice, he led a vain quest far to the north, over the Foer Drihm Wall, a boundary not surpassed in generations, all in a desperate bid to win glory in the ancient lands of the Madgyi, a legendary enemy, a nightmarish, dark-wayed people, a horror story told children to keep them in line. “The Madgyi come on nations who’s children disobey…” But so distant was their memory that no sane person believed any longer in their true existence.
When only a handful of straggling soldiers returned from the venture, tongues cut out, the head of the dead King in a sack, quiet dread gripped the land. In the distracted tumult which followed, the matter of inheritance became its own crisis. Though the Madking was unnaturally impotent his entire life, there was a late inconvenience. A singular boychild, so it was claimed, was fathered in the weeks leading up to the vainglorious journey. Worse, the mother was a mere serving maid, found both pregnant and with the signet ring of House Ambra in her keeping only days after the soldiers returned. When she cast herself from a tower window a fortnight later, most accepted the towncrier’s narrative that grief was the self-inflicting culprit, for lost true love and pillow-made promises were surely more than the common woman could bear. But others said it was the despair caused when the stewards wrested her infant son from her arms and hid him away in the safety of the inner most keep. Others whispered conspiracy. One counselor of particular power, or perhaps another, killed both her and the boy, setting his own infant son in the child’s place and calling him heir, all in order that his own line might become the new dynasty of royal seed.
Whatever the case, it was many, many years since any serious thought was given by Elusa to the Bastardking. Only slightly older than Earth, he ruled without appearance, the bare hearsay of a reign, permanently sequestered within the City of Dark Walls, no doubt pressed beneath the thumbs of well-meaning guides.
The only proof of his existence at all was annual the Seeker of the Tithe. A regular annoyance, hunched and certain to venture into Elusa at the bleakest of times, he never walked away with more than few coppers. Though dearly paid by the poor Elusans, the coin hardly made up the cost the trip.
Even this, too, was change, for times were so good that even the presence of the tax collector was a jovial sight. The Seeker came not once nor twice, but quarterly, and always at the Festival so that it was jested that his appearing was more certain than the early spring Cor Blossoms themselves. And who could blame him? He walked away with far more than a few coppers. Arriving with his detail of Shadowsun Guard, they were treated like long lost brothers, a tribe of heroes returning from a distant quest, not the once-hated tax men of an unknown usurper King, arrived spending plenty of time loitering on corners in sleek black armors, chatting by name with whomever might pass by, enjoying a free sampling of this or that, and mixing the pepper of foreign tongues with the spice of loud guffaws and “Hails!”
The Seeker was one thing. But a true proclamation, words of envoy, from the Shadowsun himself? That was something altogether different entire. If true, this would be high praise for the burgeoning township. Earth smiled at the thought.
If only he could let go of that pressure gnawing at him. That was how he used to feel at the festival, free and filled with potential, as if only something marvelous could happen next. He hungered for the crisp, warming nostalgia to take him away like the remembered it used to. This year something was different. Uglier. More ominous. Yet he could not place it. Why should foreboding thoughts plague him? The memory of her words to him before the fire could not be the soul source, could they? He did not think he much wanted to be a man so easily cowed. Still, the premonition would not let him be.
He swore at himself. It was senseless! All he had to do was look around and let go. The entire world could not be on a finer path.
But trust is a grave thing, more dynamic than sight and more enduring that sense. She was not his mother. He’d always known this. Had he not? Why did such a revelation haunt him with such radical jurisdiction, choking out reason like some unavoidable harbinger. Nameless. Creeping. A soul-deep tremor of unease. The meaning did not matter. It would not let him be.
Like silly child, captivated by imaginary fears.
Then there was Lyf. The girl who was not. An impossible love. Worse than a fairy story. Something that could never be. Something that wasn’t to begin with.
He could not forget her.
But this was his Eve of Aging. This was the day to cast away adolescent dreams and fears, to leave childish ways forever behind. But nothing could divert his apprehension. Not the flurry of the verging market. Nor the hilarious sparrows flitting between the stalls in pursuit of the fattest of them, a stolen rig berry hanging from his mouth. Nor the thought of hurrying to help his sisters put their final touches on this years display, the stall of lilac oils made by the recipe of the Mistress, which sold out annually.
Only the taint. Only the fear.
He stepped on, greeting those who hailed him with a cheery, if fabricated, hello. But his heart was not in it. He was not where he should be. Yet, what did that mean?
It should be the greatest Cor Blossom Festival of them all, his own Eve of Aging. Yet manhood met him with something he’d not expected. Turning older did not increase his joy. The foggy tides of disease instead ebbed forward sternly. He could not see why, and he knew that he could not see. This alone was more than diseasing.
“How much for this vial?” she asked. He was whittling. The voice made him hope. Hushed straw hair. Familiar blue eyes.
Earth looked up. The young woman who eyed him intently, though not unlovely, was not Lyf. When he did not respond any more than to stare back at her with unspeaking eyes, her smile vanished.
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“I’m not certain,” he said, looking back to the clunky block of wood in his hands. “Let me call my sister.”
Synu, on queue, stepped from behind the curtain at the rear of the stall. Now a woman fully in her prime, her smile shone both delicate and strong.
“I’m happy to answer any questions you might have about our oils.”
The sale finished, three of the vial in question plus seven various others, Synu returned to hover over her brother with a disapproving scowl. He made it a point to not look at her, whittling somewhat more furiously, as if bits of splintered wood and hasty thumping might drive her away.
It didn’t work.
“Yes?” He said at last, still not willing to look up.
“It is the finest Cor Blossom Festival of them all, yet my brother, the day of his Eve of Aging, most eligible bachelor of the south Ambra Coast by my rankings, handsomest man in perhaps the entire world I shouldn’t guess, sits at a boy’s task, making valiant effort to pout in the direction of every pretty girl that passes his way so that the whole village of them are full sure that he finds their very existences an aggravation. Truly, if you will not do these many good customers even the courtesy of smiling, would you at least spare your sister the torment of having to clean up after your messes? This is a shop, after all.”
Earth grinned a little to himself, but he still did not look up from his whittling.
“You are a funny one,” he said.
The flick flack of the knife sent more chips flying about, a minor hurricane of flakes and dust.
“Did I really almost ruin the sale?”
“Of course not.” She sat beside him on the crate. “Old men may come to buy ‘Anirea’s Oil’ in order to ogle at her virgin daughters, but young women do not seek out our booth for its potential romantic company. Not even yours.”
She wagged her finger. “But this does not change the fact that the Dance will begin within the hour, yet you look all the world as if you’d rather be chewing on pellets of brimstone than anywhere near anything wonderful at all, including that piece of wood. Earth, you have always loved the festival. Can you find it in your heart to tell a dear sister what has come over you?”
“I don’t know.” He stopped, now meeting her eyes with earnest disconcertion. “It is something the Mistress said to me, months gone now. You know her as well as I. She is ever full of riddles and hidden things. But what she dolled out as a hint with each passing day shakes me deeper. The more I resist, the more I search, the wider the vacancy becomes. It is an infection. My soul aches. Late afternoon shadows haunt me, and the foretelling of evening brings me no hope.”
“Well, that’s a desperate sort of thing to say.”
“Oh, I know how silly I must sound.” He looked down at the figurine in his hands. “My whole ordeal is childish fancy, I’m sure. The Eve of Aging is here, but I fail the truer test. Nothing is happening. Nothing at all. Really. At least, I don’t so. Everything is set to right. More right than it’s ever been before. But that is not what I feel. Somewhere beyond what we can see, my passions move me without my control.
“What would you have me do?” he went on. “Press a smile to my face and walk about with a handful of winter dried corn, reminding myself of all the past years and their joys? Would that not be a vain hypocrisy? Shall I force daydreams and the phantom of joy while my heart even so walks back to this corner of dark perplexity?”
“Are those wings?”
“What?” He was nonplussed.
“Wings,” she smiled, motioning at the unfinished project in his hands, “What is this thing anyway? It looks like some fantastical beast, if there ever was one. Who would ever imagine a horse with wings?”
Earth stared at his carving for a long moment, then shook his head, tossing the blocky thing into a corner where it clattered against the stall post and settled.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Synu draped her arm across his back as she sat down beside him on the crate he was using for a chair. “If the Mistress has said it, then whatever it is, I for my part believe it. Such woes are rightly enough to doom even the handsomest man in the realm to gloomy posture. But they are not enough to keep him from what certainly appears to be his very last Dance of the Cor Blossoms before the end of the world, and let me tell you why, dearest brother.
“Even should the day after tomorrow the sun itself fall into the sea, should Dark Mystics or the Madgyi of old secretly conquer us and rise as dread overlords, should abberations from the sunken world crawl up through every crack in the land to scorge us with weapons made of molten ash, you shall go to this festival and dance with the fairest maiden in all the Ambra Coast, perhaps in the entire world I shouldn’t guess!”
“And how should you know that?” he laughed.
“Because you shall dance with me!” she rose to her feet, thrusting her finger in the air and waving her hand about as if standing at the heart of an army that hung on her every word. “Nay! Fair brother, I say that even should abominable Reanai himself, vilest foe of mankind, banesayer of the Forgotten himself, announce his presence by mail to be our dinner guest tomorrow, you shall enjoy this dance.”
Earth’s smile brimmed from ear to ear at the sight of his sister’s good spirit. She know it too, for she nodded like a fine politician, puffed out her chest with encouraging mirth and went on.
“Forsooth, chosen man! Oh, melancholy one! Desperate, darkest, dreariest Earth!” A giggle glimmered through the mask of sovereignty she dawned as she lifted her nose to the sky. “I have never encountered such boreish ignorance that I cannot elevate it by the spell of a smile.”
“Have you not?” he asked. “Well, we shall see if I cannot prove your match in vigor.”
She paused, regal patience displayed with the fine wrinkles in her forehead.
“A wager then?” she asked.
He nodded once.
“So be it!” she shouted.
Now it was Earth’s turn to rise and prance, gesticulating about the booth. “Damsel daughter and virgin craftswoman of the most legendary lilac oils, wilt thou condescend to dance with an ig’nant and des’prate melancholy bore, though he be unable to mend his ways and must needs scowl the whole night long?”
“Oh, Earth,” she nodded with all the seriousness of a four-year-old. “Most verily.”
They followed the song of the rising music down the tightly knit alleys of the market.
Merchants called wares to them as they passed. Rafters were hung with laurels and strands of the golden Cor Blossoms waved passively in the twilight breeze. The two laughed and smiled, caught up with each other, eager to emerge from the maze and into the center of the old crossroads town where men and women and boys and girls alike, all adorned in colors of spring, would be dancing upon the raised square. Flowers in their hair and upon their lapels, faces made warm by fine foods and sweet meads, elite and commoner, rich and poor, they would move and mingle unhindered as they danced with each other under the reeling gaze of a starlit sky.
They came upon it all in a moment and rushed to join the fray, basking in the gleefully orchestrated tomfoolery. After a time, the bugle call for the Champions’ Dance went up, and the floor was cleared as people pressed to the sides. Earth and Synu descended from the dancing platform while the contestants to present themselves before the judge, then took up a place in line at an open-air grill selling hot-smoked kebabs and sugar-charred peapods
In the meantime, several of the soldiers who had been merrily lounging in the corners of the festivities were commandeered to help lift the great Cor Blossom trunk onto a set of massive axles also being carried to the dais. Old Philmon himself, the smithy who had first crafted the Champions’ Pillar many years before, stepped forward and drove the iron crank into tree’s base, then stood beside it waiting.
Fifteen men and youths presented themselves, each blinded with garland-hoods woven of Cor Blossoms. The eldest were given the advantage of beginning the dance already standing on the trunk, five abreast, while the others stood in line behind two short flights of wooden steps. Chimes rang, the bugle called again, and the band struck up the challenging tones of the Champions’ Dance. The people all around took up the melody, cheering and calling as Philmon’s massive arms turned the crank, slowly at the start, but ever faster to match the hastening beat of the song.
It did not take long for the first contestant to fall, pulling a second with him as he flung his arms wildly about. The younger challengers in line were then prodded by the judge to step from the well-placed stairs onto the already moving beam, risking all for glory in one fateful leap. The first to do so slipped directly off, plummeting face first onto the hardwood floor of the landing to the cacophony of cheers and groans from the crowd. The second, a sturdy and acrobatic youth, landed his mount and joined the dance, even as the contestant beside him rocked the platform with his rump and collapsed backwards into the group of those waiting their chances to do better. The laughter and singing alike crescendoed more and more with each new demonstration of slapstick, until only two remained upon the beam - that same young acrobatic challenger and one of the original contestants, a gray-bearded fellow who all the while pranced along with a broad smile beaming from his hoary head.
All the while the bugler called the melody of the dance, the hastiest tarantella of merry, bursting passion. Faster and faster the music played. Philmon’s arms and face coated with glistening sweat as he labored to keep pace. Cheers swelled to deafening proportions. Earth was beside themselves with mirth, half laughing, half watching his sister’s wonderful smile with relish and joy.
Then the frolic was broken. Something was wrong. This was not the way it was supposed to be. A trumpet call. Clear and crying. No the village bugle. Not the dance. This was richer, wider, deeper. Then it was not alone, but a harmony of brass peeling over all, laying claim to all attentions, poignant, unearthly, weighty, regal.
The band and the bugle cut out. The final contestants went down at once, knocked from their places by the unexpected energies of the nervous crowd. The entire square was silent but for the a few hushed voices that rippled from the northwest corner. First a murmur, then something more like an earthquake shooting out from its epicenter, whispers from mouth to mouth became shouts until soon the entire crowd was shouting over each other to be heard.
“It is the Shadowsun!”
“Could it really be?”
“It is, for certain.”
“He doesn’t exist.”
“That’s a stupid thing to say.”
“But its true!
“Yes, it is.”
“The Bastardking of Ambra?”
“That’s what I said.”
“I told you so.”
“Is it true?”
“I can see no better than you.”
“But there, look!”
“The Shadowsun rises from the City of Dark Walls again!”
The story of Earth continues…