Monday, August 30, 2010

Tears of Knowing (Part the Fourth)


     Clarendon knows the King is in council.  He's seen him walk past the inside Palace door.  So he waits for his master, who is not in fact, the King.  Clare likes it that way.  In another life, perhaps he'd be fine with the position of Dragoon.  That would be nice.  Those soldiers or much more respectable than the palace guards Clarendon's been staring at.  These men are all pomp and circumstance.    Pomp and Circumstance, the two guards that flank to door to the inner Courtrooms, watch the Lady leave with interest.  Clare watches the hounds with interest.  No one should ever call them dogs, he thinks.  Those animals are a different breed entirely.
     Clarendon’s sure that Hu’s distaste for her is not limited to her overwhelmingly attractive presence.  For though Hu is a frustrated man, the mage is not superficial.  However, Clare doesn't know exactly why Hu loathes her so.  Clare thinks about it every time he sees her, why the mage hates the lady.  But whatever Hu's reasons, Clare is sure they are founded.  The man has in indelible wisdom for a reason.
    When Bladt leaves in a hurry Clare’s thankful yet again that he doesn’t work for the castle’s defensive legion.  For with a scowl, Blandt makes Pomp and Circumstance quick-step behind him.  The three of them disappear behind a cloud of strong words concealed in hushed commands.  A thought occurs to Clarendon in the briefest of instants that like he, Clare, is loyal first to Haitang Hu, perhaps those soldiers are  more loyal to Bladt than the King.  It's an interesting thought, Castle politics being the tricky thing they are, it’s never easy to be sure.
     All the pieces are so fun to observe that Clare never minds waiting.  He literally never minds it.  Consequently, waiting is something Clare does very, very well.  Not just here, but anywhere.  Clare can sit and watch for days and nights on end.  He's thankful that the mage is almost always the last out of the door, but he’s always a touch disappointed when the swirling robes slide between the oak doors and out of the council room.  This time is no different.
    Though everything in the castle is red and black, wherever the mage is there is always the presence of the desert and the sea.  Even if it's only just the hint of an essence or fragrance of sand or mist, wherever Hu is, there's more than the color of might.
His robes follow him like wind swept sand, constantly in motion unless he's seated.  And the blue stone that swirls with life above his eyes provides a constant reminder that without the blessing of water all land would be as barren as cold stone.
     “Come with me,” says the mage.
     The younger man pushes off the wall and walks by Haitang’s side down the corridor.
     “I hope this is the last time that I underestimate the King.” Says Hu, as they walk through the main castle walls.  "I cannot waste more time doing it again."
     “Surely you won't.”
     “I can hope. But I think it will be incredibly difficult to stay ahead of him now.  He has things moving more quickly than I planned.  We will be fighting multiple wars, Clare.  Not just the one I had thought.”
     Clarendon stays silent.  When Hu is agitated it's best to stay quiet.
     They descend the last staircase of the inner Castle, which feeds them out onto the stubbed grass of the outer courtyard. Because of Cassius brilliant mind, the King’s chambers are farthest from the ground entrance and the closest to the rockface overlooking the sea.  It is defendable from attack in every respect.
     Clare has guessed right to stay quiet.  It's obvious by their furious pace.  When they're past the steps and into the courtyard the old man continues.
     “This is a long story, which I will cut as much as possible.  It will suit you to know it.  Are you listening?"
     "Yes master."
     "Then, there was an expedition a long time ago, before the North Kingdom was united under Cassius.  During this time, the current Duke of Yarbrough’s grandfather was King of the Northern lands.  The men of Cochran Green held their freedom then.  Those were the days actually, when Cochran the barely older than ladhood.  But they were also days when the Sandy Sea and South March lands frequently tasted blood.  Men were more tribes than countries then.
     "In search of a way past the desert, and to prove that his sailors could tame the dangerous seas, one day Old King Perandor christened a ship to sail past the edgewaters and claim the other side of the world.”
     “Master, there's always some boat trying to be financed to make that journey.  People will always try."
     “Yes some men still try, but not many anymore.  No wood is strong enough to withstand the winds that strike once you reach those tides.  And besides the wind, there's the crushing weight of the sea by the edges of the earth.  Nothing is strong enough.  It is an established fact that the tide itself unconquerable.  But once, long ago, the King named a captain and the captian chose a crew and for nearly a year men from Cochran Green and some others from further north, this land in fact, began building the strongest ship that human eyes have ever seen.”
     “Ahh, I have heard this story,” says Clare.  “The Argosy.”
     “Indeed.  It was an extraordinarly expensive venture.  The King drained the vaults of gold to make new metal widgets and new kinds of tar.  Resins were created that no one had previously seen.  The word resin itself appeared.  All of the roads of the kingdom were built during that time.  It was the age of enterprise and it was all because of a ship.”  Haitang sighs.  “There are other details, and I have purposefully forgotten them, but if you wish, they are written in the annals of history.  I have some books that you might read."
     "I have read them," Clare says.  "That's why I know the ship's name."
     "Of course.  Well, as the story goes, three men aboard the ship decided not to take the boat to and through the edgewater tides.  They had a better idea.  Rather than sail to the otherside of the world, why not just sail around this side of the world.  They decided to try to go around the Pinnacle, just out of reach from the elvish curses therein, and trade with or pillage the Tribelands only heard of, and never before seen.  I say pillage or trade with because they didn't know how powerful the unseen there would be.  Now others believe that this story of mutiny to be true.  But I believe that pillage was the plan all along, for Perandor was, like Cassius, a ruthless man.  Besides, descent never breeds quickly when in company of friends.  The crew had a year on land to bond.”
     “Master Hu, you've used that line before, but when I heard it you said 'descent breeds quickest in the company of friends.
     The mage smiles.  “Yes, perhaps I did.  But, no matter.  What's important is that the ship did not manage to make it to the other side of the earth, but it did manage to wreck on the other side of this earth.  You follow me?"
     "I do."
     "Good.  The survivors were all cursed, but didn't know it then, for they hadn't managed to completely escape the Pinnacle's influence.  Also, when I say survivors, I mean three.  The rest were eaten or sunk into the sea.  Three men washed up on the furthest western shore of this world.  It's important to know that regardless of the version, in every story these men wash up dead."
      Clare thinks on that fact for only a moment, it seems less relevant than his more pressing question.  “Were these the same three men that started the mutiny?”
     “In fact, no.  Well, perhaps.  The way I know this story, two were mutinous and one was not.  The odd man out managed out of exceptional strength.
     "Now," the mage continues, "We are all well acquainted with the great Forest's eastern side.  But these men landed on the western edge.  The Forest's curse, being different of kind than the Pinnacle, would have killed them--"
     “But they were already dead.  Or so you say.”
     “Indeed I do say, and indeed they were.”
     Clare and Hu are well passed the courtyard's lemon trees.  They now walk among the bustle of business.  Tents with vendors, people with gifts; everyone selling or buying food, wears, skin, something to trade.  Life buzzes all around them.
     “I am thankful for your company after the darkness in that castle,” confesses Hu.  “I’m glad he meets me often in my own little spire.  I dislike the weight of this fortified place.”
     They walk for a while in silence and pass through the main gate of town and into the fields just outside the castle.  Haitang’s Spire is well outside of the Castle's walls.  It's placement is purposeful for myriad reasons, all of them eccentric.  They are obviously bound for it.
     Onward, Hu continues the tale, “So the men are dead.  In this state and laying on the shore, they are found by a particular elf, a princess of cunning and wild.”
     Clare has heard Haitang speak of the elves rarely.  Though the curse of the Pinnacle is well known, he almost never mentions them otherwise.  Few people sing the tales of intrigue that surround the Forest Curse and the Great Wandering Fog that engulfs any who trespass those woods.  Everyone sings of the dwarf war, few sing of the elves. Every time Hu says elf, Clare listens keenly.
     “You’re going to tell me that the elves can bring people back to life?”
     “That’s part of the story yes, though not so believable.  It's true though, it must be.  Maybe one day you can tell me those particulars.  What I know is that since the men were dead, there was no problem with them trespassing into the forest.  Because of this, the princess laid them on her horse and rode with them to the sacrosanct places of her birthland.  She should not have done so, but she had never seen men before.  In this way curiosity and love change the world.”
     “This story is kind of amusing,” Clare says happily.
     "So far, yes.  But there's more.  The three men, upon entering some special place I do not know of, came to life and in the presence of such ancient wonder, all three fell immediately in love.  This is curious, and perhaps amusing as well, but one fell in love with a tree, one fell in love with a princess, and the other fell in love with himself.  Ahh! And look, here we are.”
     Haitang pulls a key from his robe and unlocks the Spire’s main gate.  Then he whispers two words to the wooden door just behind it.  Without a creek, it opens.  The master and apprentice walk up the winding staircase together as Hu continues.  “But love is a sort of gift, and after they left that place, each of them found that their love had transformed into something quite physical.  And so, there love's became physical gifts.  Tangible when they left that mysterious realm.  For elves are beings not so much beings of heart and mind, they are physical perfections of self.  Unlike us, they are not bound by their flesh, they are perfect within it.”
     Sometimes Clare understands his master, but sometimes he doesn't.  In the latter cases, such as now, he focuses on something that he can understand.  “What were the gifts?”  he asks.
     “One received wisdom, one received strength, and the other was given deceit.”
     “Deceit does not sound like a gift to me.”
     “Yes, that one is not easy to understand, but wisdom is not kind, nor is strength invincibility.  You will understand, being as patient as you are, that sometimes virtues are a curse.”  Haitang pauses to breathe on the staircase.  “Bound by flesh, you see?”
     Clare nods.  He knows their little walk is soon over and that he will be dismissed in front of Hu’s study door.  His master has never let him within that study.  But that is for the best, for there is much to do and the day has just past noon.
     “But lost in that telling of the story is that two children were born that I know of, though I think maybe three.  And also, that elves grow on trees.”
     “What?!”  Bursts Clare, before reeling in his surprise.  “They grow on trees?  That is, hmmm…  Well, actually, that is rather in line with what I know of elves.”
     “And what do you know of elves?” asks Haitang, beginning to walk again.
     “Only what you say.”
     “Yes.  I should hope.  But nevermind the birthing thing, these children, they are the key.  They are the blood of both the tree and of men and thus half mortal and half elven.  I tell you, something happened with those three that since then, no elves have been born.  In part of our Lord's infinite wisdom, the King has decided that these boys must be killed or captured for his own games.”    “So the King is the deceitful man?”
     “So what does he want?"
     “That, I don't know."
     “But dead elves are a bad thing.  Yes?"
      “You are, dear Clarendon, always the epitome of observation.”  Hu reaches within his robes again and pulls out his second key.  He only has two.  They have reached the Master’s study.  “You are also a very patient.  Perhaps so much so that you failed to realize that you are at the end of your studies.  It is time to kick the bird from the nest.  There is nothing I have left to teach you that you cannot more easily learn on your own.”
     “Master?” Clare would never have guessed that this would be their last trip to the spire.  He does, indeed, feel kicked.
     “I need that boy.  If the King kills him the elves are the least of our worries.  If he captures him and tries to use him… Well, there are worse demons that will be summoned if either of these children come to harm.  Find the child, if there are two, find them both.  But find at least one and bring him to me.  But whatever happens on the way, do not harm this boy.  If war has broken out then keep it safe until you breathe your last.  For if you bring him to me, that is what I shall do.  If you find two, and have to choose, take the youngest.”
     Clare looks deeply into Hu's old eyes and sighs.  He can't leave for the last time without at least a departing gift.
     The young man squats to the ground and closes his eyes.  He whispers to his hands and sweeps them just above the floor.  A green mist rises high enough for him to kiss.  Instead, Clare kisses his fingers and curls them around the light fog.  Solid whips form.  Small flares flicker underneath his hands and sparks of blue and green, small and fleeting, dance quietly along the ground.  As the mist congeals on the floor into tendrils, the little fires stop.  The twists grow from the tile into small roots that curl into a box of knotted wood that is green and blue and brown.  Clarendon picks it off the floor and stands.
      “For you, Master Hu.”
      Haitang takes the box.  It is light.  It seems knotted and brambled.  It looks thorny but is somehow smooth.  The vined sides have subtle grooves.  It is, in fact, a perfect cube. “Is there anything in it?”
     “Not yet,” says Clare.
     “Kongerei, Master Hu.” 
     Clare sees a soft flash in his master’s eyes, something from long ago.  But he says little. Hu only replies in kind.  “Kongerei, Clarendon.”
     The young man turns without bowing and rushes off down the stairs.  It is true that Clarendon is patient, for him, everything is waiting.  But as true as this is, Clarendon does not waste any time.

     Once his apprentice has disappeared down the stairs, Haitang’s key enters the final lock hole.  With a hiss, it melts into the door.  Once finished, and the door and key are one, Hu turns the small piece left in his hand.  It gives without a click; the silence always provides Hu with some small satisfaction.
     But there's more to be done, always more.  Whether or not Clare succeeds, Haitang must settle some old business.  Besides, there are preparations for the King's visit tonight.

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