Merry Christmas to Grace!
I couldn’t convince Kettetri to come play for this one, but I shall see what I can do for your birthday, youngling.
Immense gratitude is owed to the inimitable Mr. Lewis for Tashbaan, upon which the city of Athemyx is modeled, and to my mother for de-creeping the storyline.
Um… this got a little long. Sorry.
When Baral Favain the Shendi prince left the plains, in the year of the winter drought, to go with his daughter Siura back to his own people, he was sorely missed from among the small farmers and the villagers. Tales were told in the long nights of that winter and all winters after, tales of speculation as to where he was, what he was doing, and whether he would ever return. For while Baral Favain was distrusted during his years living in the little house in the hills, those without good cause for gratitude to him were few and far between.
Some of the stories told in the years of Baral Favain’s absence were true, for occasionally, whenever the moon rose blue over the mountains, the Shendi prince wrote a letter to the farmer’s son Olik Petir, his great friend in this place. And Olik Petir shared these letters with the traveling storytellers who wander from one village to another. The letters told of joy – such as the marriage of Siura Favain to one of the tribe’s foremost warriors, and the birth of her twin son and daughter – and of sorrow – such as the death of an entire family when a tent caught fire.
One letter, received some eight years after Baral Favain’s departure, related an incident so curious that its full and correct recitation has become the test of a traveling storyteller’s worth. Although the original letter detailing the story has been lost, its memory survives.
It happened in those days that the King, in spite of his fabulous wealth, legendary power, and dozen or more beautiful wives of noble family, did not have everything he wanted. His first wife, the Queen, was unable to have children, and permitting the son of a lesser wife to inherit the throne was unthinkable, as the families of the other wives would start a civil war. It also happened that the King heard, through a long and roundabout route, that once upon five or so years ago, there had been a wizard or mage living in the hills on rim of the Wall of Spears Mountains. He further heard that this wizard had remarkable authority over the elements and, apparently, over the spirits, and moreover had lately vanished away to the east.
So the King, having all the aforementioned wealth and power, sent out riders to the east, to find the reputed wizard Baral Favain and request, order, or if necessary compel him to come to the capital city, Athemyx, in order that he could find a solution to the King’s dilemma.
Baral Favain, of course, required no compulsion or even orders, but came willingly, on the grounds that even a King was a person, and in this case, a person who needed his help. Siura Favain, her husband, and the twins, then five years of age, came with him, to see the beautiful heart of the kingdom around whose edges the Shendi often wandered.
And a beautiful city Athemyx was, built of white stone quarried many centuries before, but still as bright and clean as the snow that fell every winter. Its avenue of marble mansions, the city houses of nobles from all over the kingdom, stretched, tree-lined, from the arched city gates to the King’s palace at the apex of a man-made hill. Outside the gates, the homes of the poorer people of the city spread out from the base of the hill for two miles in every direction, like serfs clustered around and bowing to their elevated masters.
Through the brown stone and brick of the suburbs of Athemyx rode Baral Favain and his family, and at every turn of the narrow streets, people stopped in their work to stare. Never, in that place, had been seen people like these Shendi, with their flame-colored hair hot and bright in the sunlight, and their armor glittering under their cloaks, and their coarse blue clothing like fragments of the heavens at noon. (The people of this land do not wear the color blue, in honor to the gods of the sky, whose children they consider themselves.)
The he-twin rode with Baral Favain on his riding-beast, and the she-twin rode with her father, for the children had yet to learn to ride a long way without becoming restless. While Siura Favain’s timid mare riding-beast could not abide their fidgeting, the men’s stallions had seen battle and were unlikely to be troubled by younglings. The twins, raised all their short lives on the open plains and in the nomad tents, giggled and pointed at the strange sights around them, and chattered to each other all the way to the King’s palace.
At the palace, Baral Favain and his family were shown all courtesy, and none dared look askance at their foreign garb and gear. Mute slaves, such as are favored in the great houses, took the riding-beasts to stables, and a nobleman, a favorite of the King, escorted the Shendi immediately into the royal audience hall, where the King sat enthroned with his Queen at his right hand. Siura Favain and her husband, suddenly conscious of their dusty traveling clothes in the crowd of rustling silken gowns and velvet doublets in the hall, hung back nervously, holding the twins’ hands to prevent them running away to explore.
Baral Favain, supremely confident and ignoring the strangeness of his appearance, armed and armored, in this place, strode forward to greet the King, who returned his polite inclination of the head with only miniscule surprise. Even courtiers, even his majesty’s own family, bowed from the waist; any person of lesser degree knelt to kiss the floor at the King’s feet; but Baral Favain merely nodded as to an equal.
When the King had outlined his problem, the Shendi prince considered it for a time before replying, “Sire, thy faith in me is greater than mine own. Some things that T’Narxai the great god wills, we dislike, but must accept. Thy lady wife canst not bear thee children: unfortunate. I mean no disrespect, milady. I say what I see,” he added, addressing the Queen. “But sire, an I might advise thee, I would advise thee to appoint an heir with all haste, that thy nobles may be accustomed to the idea many years before it be needful. Has his grace thy brother any children? Or his grace the Queen’s brother?”
At this moment, Siura Favain’s small son became entranced by the play of the sunlight over the silver embroidery of the Queen’s silken robe, and wrested his hand from his mother’s grasp to run across the room and gain a closer view. The Queen laughed, and lifted the boy into her lap, and gave him her diamond bracelet to catch sunbeams with.
“My lord King,” laughed the Queen, “isn’t this foreigner a beautiful boy? I wish I could keep him!”
“My lady,” quoth Siura Favain, whose love for her child made her bold to step forward and speak before the staring courtiers, “that boy is my son, and with him resteth the future of his people.”
“Ah,” said the Queen. “And that is your daughter. May the children play with me for a while?”
“An I have thy word they will return to me,” said Siura Favain, “it is granted to thee.”
So the twin children of Siura Favain went with the Queen to her private apartments, and there the Queen’s handmaidens gave them honeyed confections to eat and beautiful toys with which to amuse themselves. And the Queen herself knelt on the silken carpets of her sitting room and told stories to the twins, which they appreciated, because the complexity of the tales, and the Queen’s softly accented voice, were novel to children raised with the plain speech and straightforward manner of the Shendi tale-spinners.
In the middle of the afternoon, the courtier who had first accompanied the Shendi into the palace came to the Queen’s apartments to inform her majesty that Baral Favain and his party would remain in the palace overnight, for the King wished to speak further with the Shendi prince in the morning, but that Siura Favain requested her children brought to her. The courtier, Snarxan’n Narelkh by name, was surprised to see his Queen sitting on the floor, fastening the she-twin’s red hair into a complicated arrangement such as was favored at court. The he-twin prattled to her and played with finely carved and painted wooden models of preying-beasts, striped, spotted, and plain, some of them made with miniature manes fashioned from the real hair of such beasts.
Snarxan’n Narelkh and two of the Queen’s handmaidens took the children to the luxurious quarters the King had had prepared for the Shendi family, and left only when they were sure Siura Favain was satisfied as to the twins’ wellbeing. Straightway the nobleman was gone, Siura Favain dismissed the slaves the King had sent to wait on them, and herself saw to the business of putting the twins to bed. Her husband was in to the stables, to see that the riding-beasts were well cared for, and Baral Favain had gone walking in the palace garden, to think, as he put it.
In the morning, when Baral Favain was once again with the King, Snarxan’n Narelkh came on behalf of the Queen, to request the twins’ presence again, and Siura Favain repaired to the royal library, to read parts of the history of the kingdom, and her husband spent the day with the King’s guard, comparing tactics and weaponry.
That day, some time after the late summer sundown, Siura Favain requested a page to go to the Queen and ask that the twins be returned to the Shendi’s temporary quarters. The page returned shortly after, to say that her majesty the Queen had sent the two most trusted of her handmaidens with the children, over an hour before. At this, without stopping to think, Siura Favain buckled her sword upon her belt, and strode through the echoing corridors of the palace to the Queen’s apartments, with courtiers and slaves alike scattering before her like dry leaves before a hurricane.
“Where be my children?” Siura Favain hissed angrily at the handmaiden who opened the door to her. The servant started as Siura Favain’s hand dropped to her sword hilt, and then stepped up to bar her way.
“You may not enter; the Queen is resting. Her majesty does not know where your children are. Try asking your father the wizard,” the handmaiden suggested coldly.
Siura Favain returned most of the way she had come, but turned off down a corridor more magnificent and gilded even than those of the palace’s residential wing, toward the King’s private study, wherein he was closeted in conference with Baral Favain. In the book-lined, sunlit room, with volumes of genealogy and history laid open on every available flat surface, the King and the Shendi prince discussed the problem of the succession. The King’s bodyguard, stationed outside the door, reacted to Siura Favain’s arrival, armed as she was, in a similar manner to the Queen’s servant.
“I would speak to my father,” Siura Favain said, at a volume calculated to reach beyond the blue riyo-wood door of the study. And sure enough, Baral Favain heard her and came out into the corridor.
“What troublest thee, Siura Favain? And why goest thou armed in the palace?”
“Mayhap my thoughts were confused,” the woman said quietly. “Father, the twins art vanished and none knowest where they be. To tell truly, I am little accustomed to see troubles I cannot solve with my sword.” And she told Baral Favain the full tale.
“Ay, that is just cause for thy distress,” quoth Baral Favain. “Return thou to the Queen’s apartments, and see thou speakest directly to the handmaidens concerned in the matter; perchance they mought have thy answer.” As Siura Favain turned to do as her father suggested, he called after her, “An thou divestest thyself of thy sword, thy welcome wilt be the warmer.”
The handmaidens of the Queen related that they had duly brought the children to Siura Favain’s quarters, but that as nobody was there, and as the servants had to return to the Queen, a high-ranked slave had suggested that the twins could be cared for in the nursery with the younger children of the palace until such time as Siura Favain could be located. The slave had taken it upon himself to convey the twins thence, accompanied by the handmaidens as far as the nursery antechambers. Upon enquiry, the nursery maids denied ever having seen the Shendi younglings.
By this time, it was full dark without, and Siura Favain was near frantic. Her husband, upon learning what had happened, asked immediately for the name of the slave involved, but the handmaidens did not know him, and he was not of the palace staff.
Baral Favain, his business with the King concluded to mutual satisfaction, came into this commotion with his habitual calm unruffled.
“Canst thou describe me the man?” he asked the handmaidens. “An we can make a close image of him, mayhap there will be one who knowest him from it.” So the Queen’s handmaidens, excused from their duties for this most pressing case, explained, and contradicted each other, and wavered and hesitated, and leaned over Baral Favain’s shoulder as he made, from their descriptions, a sketch of the slave in question.
Late at night, the King had his personal scribes made exact copies of the sketch, and these were passed from hand to hand throughout the palace, until at last a lackey in the kitchens recognized it as a likeness of the personal slave of Snarxan’n Narelkh. By this time, so many people had gathered in the corridor near the throne room that it was a simple matter to find someone who knew where Snarxan’n Narelkh was, and to have him summoned to give an explanation of himself.
When the lord came, passing through the crowd outside the throne room with increasingly apparent worry, he came to the dais where the King sat, to find Baral Favain standing to the right of the King.
“What is this about?” Snarxan’n Narelkh asked, sulkily, for the King’s summons had woken him from a comfortable slumber in his house farther down the city.
“Our friend and advisor Baral Favain has told us that some of his household are missing,” the King, his voice suitably calm and regal. “Have you any idea where they could be?”
“I haven’t seen the children anywhere,” replied Snarxan’n Narelkh glibly, at which words Baral Favain beckoned toward the doors behind the dais. Siura Favain’s husband came out to stand at the King’s left, and Siura Favain herself to sit on the dais steps, her naked sword across her knees.
“Nobody,” said Baral Favain, “hath mentioned to thee children. Yet thou knewest beforehand that it wast children that were missing. What hast thou done?”
“Milady the Queen wanted the children. I am a loyal servant of the Queen, and duty bound to do her will wherever possible. I took them because the need of the Royal family is greater than that of a tribe of barbarians, and if it is those children the Queen wants, those she shall have.” Thus spake the courtier, without a whisper of shame or of remorse.
“Get out!” cried the King to Snarxan’n Narelkh. “You have disgraced us all in the eyes of our honored guests. Bring back the children this instant, and I will have you and all your family up to four generations’ remove banished from Athemyx, on pain of execution, rather than having you executed directly.”
Snarxan’n Narelkh realized that this was a fair arrangement, and promptly sent his slave back to his house, where he had secretly hidden Siura Favain’s twins earlier in the day, to bring them, at once, back to the King’s palace. Escorted by two of the burlier Royal guardsmen, the slave scurried back down the hill of the city of Athemyx, and returned, out of breath, within ten minutes. The younglings, unaffected by their adventure, seemed rather to have enjoyed the ride back to the palace, carried loftily along on the guardsmen’s shoulders, and were returned unharmed to their mother. Although the he-twin showed a dangerous interest in the violet gem in the pommel of her sword, Siura Favain sheathed it before the child hurt himself.
As the dawn broke over the city, Baral Favain and his family mounted their riding-beasts and rode away across the plains, back to where the Shendi had camped to wait for them, on the outskirts of the kingdom. The King followed Baral Favain’s advice, and had his brother’s eldest son marry the Queen’s brother’s eldest daughter, so that the Royal line could continue in stability and strong alliance. Snarxan’n Narelkh and his entire household crept away into obscurity… but as some men of science will tell you, there really is no such place as Away. Anything that is in the mythical country of Away can come back at any time. The Narelkhs actually went to their estate in the mountainous country to the north of the kingdom.
And when he had returned to his people, and they had struck camp and carried on their way, Baral Favain wrote a letter to Olik Petir, telling him all about the Adventure of the Twins.
Oh – Nasriel suggested I tell you this: the courtier’s name literally means Sneaky Snake.