|Tale 1: Into the Sea of Sand
Author: echonymph PM
On his first trip to the Emperor's Palace, young nobleman Rasha's world is turned upside down as an ancient prophesy begins to unravel.Rated: Fiction M - English - Fantasy/Supernatural - Chapters: 11 - Words: 19,851 - Reviews: 23 - Favs: 4 - Follows: 2 - Updated: 10-15-07 - Published: 11-06-06 - Status: Complete - id: 2272489
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
Tale 1: Into the Sea of Sand
The Girl in the Water
The Boy who Disliked Swans
Young Rasha walked with his father and mother to the Emperor's Palace. It loomed before them, white marble and gold turrets. Rasha craned his neck to stare up at it. It was visible for miles out into the desert, until it finally vanished in the distance and the sand and heat-haze. When it was visible, the sands cast their spell—a mirage setting the Palace miles above the scorching ground, the sun casting reflections from the shining towers that glittered and dazzled the eye. As they approached, the palace grew even larger, until he couldn't see the sky unless he looked straight up, which he did, nearly loosing his turban in the process.
"Rasha!" his mother scolded. She had forced him to wear some of his best cloths to their meeting with the Emperor. Actually, only his father, Chanioh, would be attending, for he was a member of the great Council of Lords, who stood second to only the Emperor himself.
"Ashenal, stop badgering the boy, it's his first sighting of the palace, after all," Chanioh said, amused, meeting his wife's eyes over her amber modesty veil. Though the sheer veil covered her front from nose to waist, her smile dazzled. Ashenal t'Epsihl was one of the few true desert beauties, even after childbirth and almost a decade of marriage.
Rasha rolled his eyes, fiddling with his wrist cuffs. His parents were blessed that their marriage, though arranged, had resulted in a love-bond. He knew this was seldom the case, even though he was only eight. Soon he, too, would be married, or at least engaged, to a noble girl of another family. He had already shown great promise in his skill with a sword, and his family was a respected one. Already his father had received portraits and letters about available daughters, though it was a little early to declare an engagement. Rasha sighed; he probably wouldn't even meet his bride until they came before the Emperor when he was sixteen. He thought with envy of the barbaric mountain folk, who chose their own partners and sometimes spent their entire lives around their forges, not marrying at all. The foreign sound of moving water broke him of his thoughts.
The palace stood in an oasis. Fountains were placed at every corner. Rasha had never seen so much water. In the distance, a great falls flowed from the mountains, carving a path through the sands toward the Emperor's City. He saw strange white birds with long necks. The fatter ones swam gracefully by, while the skinny ones walked slowly on long, reed-thin legs. The skinny ones had long beaks as well, and as he watched, one pulled a fish out of the water with its beak and flew away. The fat ones paid it no heed, just floated serenely past, as if they were emperors in their own right. Rasha passed under the archway into the palace grounds and lost sight of the flocks of white birds.
"Rasha, my son," Ashenal said, "Your father and I must greet the Emperor, go play. But, be sure to mind thy manners and get not into trouble." He nodded and scampered off quickly, before she could change her mind. Ashenal smiled sadly. "Did he have to grow so fast?" she asked Chanioh wistfully, as their only child started to harass the fat swans floating in the fountain.
Chanioh captured her hand in his, giving it a quick squeeze before letting it go, lest their affection distress someone more tradition-bound than they. "All children must grow, My Heart, our own is no exception."
Ashenal smiled up at him "But do they have to do it so rapidly?"
"Alas, I suppose they must." Chanioh answered, sounding as wistful as his wife. "Come, we must go, or we will be late."
The palace was a fun place to play; it was so big, though! Soon completely lost, Rasha decided to explore a little, rather than run aimlessly about. White-clad guards stood at every doorway with sabers tucked into their scarlet sashes. Their dark-skinned faces were impassive below their white and scarlet turbans. The marble tiles of the floor gleamed, and Rasha could see his own reflection. He stared at it a while, twisting his face into frightful visages and laughing at the results. The only mirrors in his home were in his mother's room, and he wasn't allowed near them, lest he break one. That they had mirrors at all reflected the importance of his family, had he but known it. Long ago a soothsayer had given a prophecy that to their family would be born the Avatar of the Hawk, the brave and legendary Air God, and so his family was revered. Rasha scowled, no longer interested in his reflection. Stupid legend! No matter where he went, he couldn't escape the looks, the whispers; that his line would give birth to the Avatar. Some believed it already had, in the person of his twelve-year-old cousin, Shalden ra'Havia. It would make sense. Shalden was handsome, a good fighter, and an even better leader. Rasha hoped one day to be like him. He spared a moment to remember when last his cousin had visited; he had been training with the saber, blindfolded, and told to attack. He had been defeated, of course, but asked to try again. That time had ended in a draw, and a wild applause. Rasha had taken off the cloth to see his cousin standing opposite him, smiling widely.
Rasha sighed, wishing he could be more like Shalden instead of himself.
"Yourself is not all that horrendous."
Rasha whirled to find a wizened old man, his hair dignified silver, his kind face a mass of wrinkles. Rasha bowed low, embarrassed that he had evidently voiced his thoughts aloud. "Forgive me, Elder, for I thought I was alone. I did not see thee there."
The old man chuckled. "Here long, youngling?"
"Until the Council adjourns, Elder." Rasha replied, keeping his eyes respectfully on the ground.
"So, about two weeks then, if I'm any judge of things," the old man said cheerfully. "And the bones say that the issues stand, and as the issues stand you will stay. And in staying here, we can put things on course."
Rasha didn't reply, but he was starting to suspect that the man was quite dotty.
"So, the young man, searching for Direction. Up is a good direction, but you must go down before you can go up" the man said thoughtfully. "The Flame Dances with the Sorceress now, so that won't do, not that Direction." The man looked around, stopping when he was completely backward in the little niche he had been occupying. "Yes, there's a good Direction. Go that way!" he commanded, pointing fiercely at the wall behind him.
Rasha stared at him, wondering if he should get someone to look after the man. Maybe he had escaped from somewhere. "Uh…"
The man smiled, showing four solitary teeth spaced unevenly in his bare gums. "No need to thank me, I'll just be eating my sand bread on the Middle Moon," he leaned in close, as though telling a secret. "She's full tonight, you know." Without another word, the old man waddled off, singing and muttering nonsense to himself as he went. "I've seen to the Fledgling, must see to the Candle. Wouldn't want the amber to get lost, oh, no. Such pretty amber from the Mountains…" Suddenly he turned back to Rasha, "Well? Get thee on through! I can't do everything!" he barked, and hobbled away again.
Rasha shook his head. Poor old man, he hoped someone was looking after him. About to turn the other way, Rasha noticed light spilling through a crack where the wall met the floor. What he thought was a niche was really a door. Smiling to himself, he pressed on the door, which swung open soundlessly to his touch. He stepped through, shut the door, and looked around.
Mirrors. Everywhere he looked, there were mirrors. How could he possibly move around without breaking one? Quickly he turned to exit again, but the door was gone, another mirror in its place. Suddenly he realized where he was; the Emperor's Mirror Maze. As he looked around, he noted that no two of his reflections were alike. Some were fat and squat, some tall and skinny, he found one where he was upside-down. Just as he had given up hope that he was ever going to find his way out of the maze, the mirrors gave way to a menagerie of free-roaming animals. A tamed sand tiger padded up to him and demanded a scratch, butting its head against his chest, for it was as tall in the shoulder as he was. He complied, grinning as the cat gave forth a loud, rumbling purr.
Quite suddenly the tiger jerked its head away from his fingers, staring off in the other direction, just like, Rasha noticed, every other animal in the garden. Even the birds had stopped singing, gazing expectantly at a door Rasha hadn't noted. Faint strings of harp music floated in from the room beyond. Moving slowly around the entranced animals, Rasha moved into the next room and found himself in the center dome of the palace. He had assumed it would be the throne room, but he had been in error.
The room in which he now stood had no marble floor, but instead was a thick green carpet of moss, a plant he had only heard about. Small flowers of all colors dotted the green expanse, which ended abruptly at the natural spring that the palace had been built around. Legend said that the Hawk had built the Emperor's palace around the spring to house the Laughing Girl, Goddess of Water, and His Wife. When They had returned to the Heavens, They had given it to Their children, naming Their eldest son Emperor of the Desert, and Their other children the Great Council.
The domed ceiling was covered in mirrors and bits of crystal, reflecting the reflections of the spring back at it. In the center of the ceiling was a sun-shaped hole, through which birds flew to and from the outside gardens. The spring itself was full of stepping-stones, leading to an island on which sat a girl of about his age, playing the harp he had heard. Surrounding her were those pompous white birds that he was coming to detest.
The girl seemed to like them all right, however, as she was talking to one as if it had brains in its tiny had feathered skull. Then she began to sing to it, and Rasha understood what the animals had been waiting for. Though soft, her voice was pure, and as she sang, answering notes sounded from the crystals above and even the spring itself. Rasha somehow sensed that the room was made for just this purpose, and that it had not been used for this purpose since the Laughing Girl Herself had been there.
Oblivious to him, the girl continued singing. She wore loose violet trousers, gathered at the ankle, and a long, lighter tunic with a dark purple sash under a sheer lavender day-robe. A string of jade and amethyst beads hung across her forehead, clasping into her hair-veil in the back. Like her hair-veil, her modesty veil was a light purple, though it only reached slightly past her chin.
She was finishing her song. The crystal rang and the water ran over the stones and the spirits seemed to join in until over a hundred harmonies seemed to ring in the space beneath the dome. Just when he thought that he couldn't stand it anymore, that the beauty and intensity of the otherworldly music might drive him mad or even kill him, it ceased.
Silence seemed to ring just as resoundingly as the last cord, then Rasha inadvertently broke it by gasping for breath. Once he had gotten himself under control, he looked up to see that the girl had moved by his side, and was gazing at him in puzzlement and concern.
Her eyes were violet, too.
"Hello," he managed.
"Hello," she replied, looking at him strangely, "What ist thou doing here?"
"Uh…" Rasha really didn't have an answer to that one.
The tiger he had petted earlier came up behind him and butted his head against Rasha's back. With an undignified yelp, he fell forward into the spring, startling the fat white birds.
Terror overcame him as he thrashed around beneath the surface. Then, miraculously, the water itself seemed to lift him up and set him on dry land. The girl was looking at him in amusement. "Doest thou not knowist how to swim?"
Rasha felt a flash of irritation. "I live in the middle of the Sea of Sand! How am I supposed to learn how to swim!"
The girl looked shamefaced for a moment, then said, shyly, "I could teach thee, if thou wantist." There was some pleading in that statement, and Rasha realized that in all the palace he had seen no one else their age. At home, he had played with the children of the servants and slaves—who were technically free, slavery wasn't hereditary—but that was not the case with most noble children, who were forbidden to play with anyone below their rank.
"Are there not other daughters of Council members here?" he asked, stalling.
"They do not like me, I do not know why. They used to, but they stopped. Only Shari still likes me, and Shari has lessons all day, today. Besides, I cannot swim alone, and Shari does not like to swim."
"Oh," Rasha replied, feeling dumb and slightly guilty, "alright. If thou wouldst like to teach me to swim, I give thee consent, just don't drown me." He added.
The girl giggled. "I will try not to do so," she said, trying to be grave, but not succeeding. "I am Anyia, to my friends." She looked suddenly worried, "Thou doest want to be my friend, doest thou not?"
Rasha smiled and nodded. He could think of worse people to be friends with than this pretty girl, who at least seemed nice. "I am Rasha."
"Rasha," she said, trying it out.
"I shall need to change clothes if I am to swim."
Anyia nodded happily. "Meet thee by the Laughing River in half a mark?" she asked hopefully.
"Alright," he replied, dashing out of the room, "see thee then!" Outside the domed room, Rasha consulted a guard as to where the guest chambers were, and told himself that the fluttery feelings in his stomach were nerves from almost drowning.
After a few false starts, Rasha took to swimming like one of the fat white birds, which Anyia called swans. The tall, thin ones she called cranes. "I like the cranes better," Rasha declared on their second day of swimming lessons. "They are not so condescending."
Anyia caressed the head of a nearby swan. "They are not so bad, friend Rasha, once you get to know them. When I was very small, one even let me ride her."
"Really?" Rasha asked, surprised. "Huh." He strode towards one of the bigger swans, grabbed it, and sat on it. The swan trumpeted its surprise and displeasure, dragging the helpless Rasha into deeper waters.
"Rasha!" Anyia cried, jumping in after him. "Rasha, swim back, you're going to go over the falls!" She reached out and grabbed his vest, but the current was too strong, and, amidst the alarmed cries of those who watched, they plummeted over the falls.