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The Helliconia Trilogy: Book Two
By Brian W. Aldiss
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1983 Brian W. Aldiss
All rights reserved.
THE SEACOAST OF BORLIEN
Waves climbed the slope of the beach, fell back, and came again. A short way out to sea, the procession of incoming surges was broken by a rocky mass crowned with vegetation. It marked a division between the deeps and the shallows. Once the rock had formed part of a mountain far inland, until volcanic convulsions hurled it into the bay.
The rock was now domesticated by a name. It was known as the Linien Rock. The bay and the place were named Gravabagalinien after the rock. Beyond it lay the shimmering blues of the Sea of Eagles. The waves splashing against the shore were clouded with sand picked up before they scattered into flurries of white foam. The foam raced up the slope, only to sink voluptuously into the beach.
After surging round the bastion of Linien Rock, the waves met at different angles on the beach, bursting up with redoubled vigour so as to swirl about the feet of a golden throne which was being lowered to the sand by four phagors. Into the flood were dipped the ten roseate toes of the Queen of Borlien.
The dehorned ancipitals stood motionless. With nothing more than the flick of an ear, they allowed the milky flood to boil about their feet, greatly though they feared water. Although they had carried their royal load half a mile from the Gravabagalinien palace, they showed no fatigue. Although the heat was intense, they showed no sign of discomfort. Nor did they display interest as the queen walked naked from her throne to the sea.
Behind the phagors, on dry sand, the majordomo of the palace supervised two human slaves in the erection of a tent, which he filled with bright Madi carpets.
The wavelets fawned about the ankles of Queen MyrdemInggala. "The queen of queens" was what the Borlienese peasantry called her. With her went her daughter by the king, Princess Tatro, and some of the queen's constant companions.
The princess screamed with excitement and jumped up and down. At the age of two years and three tenners, she regarded the sea as an enormous, mindless friend.
"Oh, look at this wave coming, Moth! The biggest wave yet! And the next one ... here it comes ... ooh! A monster, high as the sky! Oh, they're getting ever so big! Ever so bigger, Moth, Moth, look! Just look at this one now, look, it's going to burst and—ooh, here comes another, even huger! Look, look, Moth!"
The queen nodded gravely at her daughter's delight in the placid little waves, and raised her eyes to the distance. Slatey clouds piled up on the southern horizon, heralds of the approaching monsoon season. The deep waters had a resonance for which "blue" was no adequate description. The queen saw azure, aquamarine, turquoise, and viridian there. On her finger she wore a ring sold her by a merchant in Oldorando with a stone—unique and of unknown provenance—which matched the colours of the morning's sea. She felt her life and the life of her child to be to existence as the stone was to the ocean.
From that reservoir of life came the waves which delighted Tatro. For the child, every wave was a separate event, experienced without relation to what had been and what was to come. Each wave was the only wave. Tatro still lingered in the eternal present of childhood.
For the queen, the waves represented a continuous operation, not merely of the ocean but of the world process. That process included her husband's rejection of her, and the armies on the march over the horizon, and the increasing heat, and the sail she hoped every day to see on the horizon. From none of these things could she escape. Past or future, they were contained in her dangerous present.
Calling good-bye to Tatro, she ran forward and dived into the water. She separated herself from the little figure hesitant in the shallows, to espouse the ocean. The ring flashed on her finger as her hands sliced the surface and she swam out.
The waters were elegant against her limbs, cooling them luxuriously. She felt the energies of the ocean. A line of white breakers ahead marked the division between the waters of the bay and the sea proper, where the great westbound current flowed, dividing the continents of torrid Campannlat and chilly Hespagorat, and sweeping round the world. MyrdemInggala never swam further than that line unless her familiars were with her.
Her familiars were arriving now, lured by the strong taint of her femininity. They swam near. She dived with them as they talked in their orchestral language to which she was still a stranger. They warned her that something—an unpleasantness—was about to happen. It would emerge from the sea, her domain.
The queen's exile had brought her to this forsaken spot in the extreme south of Borlien, Gravabagalinien, Ancient Gravabagalinien, haunted by the ghosts of an army which had perished here long ago. It was all her shrunken domain. Yet she had discovered another domain, in the sea. Its discovery was accidental, and dated from the day when she had entered the sea during the period of her menses. Her scent in the water had brought the familiars to her. They had become her everyday companions, solace for all that was lost and all that threatened her.
Fringed by the creatures, MyrdemInggala floated on her back, her tender parts exposed to the heat of Batalix overhead.
The water droned in her ears. Her breasts were small and cinnamon tipped, her hips broad, her waist narrow. The sun sparkled on her skin. Her human companions sported nearby. Some swam close to the Linien Rock, others skipped along the beach; all unconsciously used the queen as reference point. Their cries rang in competition with the clash of waves.
Away up the beach, beyond the seawrack, beyond the cliffs, stood the white and gold palace of Gravabagalinien, the home to which the queen was now exiled, awaiting her divorce—or her murder. To the swimmers, it looked like a painted toy.
The phagors stood immobile on the beach. Out to sea, a sail hung immobile. The southern clouds appeared not to move. Everything waited.
But time moved. The dimday wore on—no person of standing would venture into the open in these latitudes when both suns were in the sky. And, as dimday passed, the clouds became more threatening, the sail slanted eastwards, moving towards the port of Ottassol.
In due time the waves brought a human corpse with them. This was the unpleasantness of which the familiars had warned. They squealed in disgust.
The body came swinging about the shoulder of Linien Rock as if it still possessed life and will, to be washed up in a shallow pool. There it lay, carelessly, face down. A sea bird lit on its shoulder.
MyrdemInggala caught the flash of white and swam over to inspect. One of the ladies of her court was there already, gazing down in horror at the sight of the strange fish. Its thick black hair was spikey with brine. An arm was wrapped brokenly round the neck. The sun was already drying its puckered flesh when the queen's shadow fell over it.
The body was swollen with putrefaction. Tiny shrimps in the pool scudded to feed off one broken knee. The court lady put out her foot and tipped the carcass over. It sprawled on its back, stinking.
A mass of writhing scupperfish hung from the face, busily devouring mouth and eye sockets. Even under the glare of Batalix, they did not cease their guzzling.
The queen turned nimbly about as she heard the patter of small feet approaching. She seized Tatro and swung the child up above her head, kissing her, smiling warmly at her in reassurance, and then scampering up the beach with her. As she went, she called to her majordomo.
"ScufBar! Get this thing off our beach. Have it buried as soon as possible. Outside the old ramparts."
The servant rose from the shade of the tent, brushing sand from his charfrul.
"At once, ma'am," he said.
Later in the day, the queen, driven by her anxieties, thought of a better way of disposing of the corpse.
"Take it to a certain man I know in Ottassol," she instructed her little majordomo, fixing him earnestly with her gaze. "He's a man who buys bodies. I shall also give you a letter, though not for the anatomist. You are not to tell the anatomist where you come from, you understand?"
"Who is this man, ma'am?" ScufBar looked the picture of unwillingness.
"His name is CaraBansity. You are not to mention my name to him. He has a reputation for craftiness."
She strove to hide her troubled mind from the servants, little thinking that the time would unfold when her honour rested in CaraBansity's hands.
Beneath the creaking wooden palace lay a honeycomb of cool cellars. Some of the cellars were filled with pile on pile of ice blocks, which had been hewn from a glacier in distant Hespagorat. When both suns had set, Majordomo ScufBar descended among the ice blocks, carrying a whale-oil lantern above his head. A small slave boy followed him, clutching the hem of his charfrul for safety. By way of self-defence in a lifetime of drudgery, ScufBar had become hollow-chested, round-shouldered, and pot-bellied, so as to proclaim his insignificance and escape further duties. The defence had not worked. The queen had an errand for him.
He put on leather gloves and a leather apron. Pulling aside the matting from one of the piles of ice, he gave the lantern to the boy and picked up an ice-axe. With two blows, he severed one of the blocks from its neighbour.
Carrying the block, and grunting to convince the boy of its weight, he made his way slowly up the stairs and saw to it that the boy locked the door behind him. He was greeted by hounds of monstrous size, which prowled the dark corridors. Knowing ScufBar, they did not bark.
He made his way with the ice through a back door and into the open. He listened to hear the slave boy bolt it securely from the inside. Only then did he make his way across the courtyard.
Stars gleamed overhead, and an occasional violet flicker of aurora, which lit his way under a wooden arch to the stables. He smelt the tang of hoxney manure.
A stablehand waited in the gloom, shivering. Everyone was nervous after dark in Gravabagalinien, for then the soldiers of the dead army were said to march in search of friendly land-octaves. A line of brown hoxneys shuffled in the gloom.
"Is my hoxney ready, lad?"
The stablehand had equipped a pack hoxney ready for ScufBar's journey. Over the animal's back had been secured a long wicker casket used for transporting goods requiring ice to keep them fresh. With a final grunt, ScufBar slid the block of ice into the casket, onto a bedding of sawdust.
"Now help me with the body, lad, and don't be squeamish."
The body which had been washed into the bay lay in a corner of the stable, in a puddle of sea water. The two men dragged it over, heaved it up, and arranged it on top of the ice. With some relief, they strapped the padded casket lid down.
"What a beastly cold thing it is," said the stablehand, wiping his hands on his charfrul.
"Few people think well of a human corpse," said ScufBar, pulling off his gloves and apron. "It's fortunate that the deuteroscopist in Ottassol does."
He led the hoxney from the stable and past the palace guard, whose whiskery faces peered nervously from a hut near the ramparts. The king had given his rejected queen only the old or untrustworthy to defend herself with. ScufBar himself was nervous, and never ceased to peer about him. Even the distant boom of the sea made him nervous. Once outside the palace grounds, he paused, took breath, and looked back.
The mass of the palace stood out against the star shingle in fretted outline. In one place only did a light punctuate its darkness. There a woman's figure could be discerned, standing on her balcony and gazing inland. ScufBar nodded to himself, turned towards the coast road, and pulled the hoxney's head eastwards, in the direction of Ottassol.
Queen MyrdemInggala had summoned her majordomo to her earlier. Although she was a religious woman, superstition lingered with her, and the discovery of the body in the water disturbed her. She was inclined to take it as an omen of her own threatened death.
She kissed the Princess TatromanAdala good night and retired to pray. This evening, Akhanaba had no comfort to offer, although she had conceived a simple plan whereby the corpse might be used to good effect.
She feared what the king might do—to her and to her daughter. She had no protection from his anger, and clearly understood that as long as she lived her popularity made her a threat to him. There was one who would protect her, a young general; to him she had sent a letter, but he was fighting in the Western Wars and had not replied.
Now she sent another letter, in ScufBar's care. In Ottassol, a hundred miles distant, one of the envoys of the Holy Pannovalan Empire was due to arrive shortly—with her husband. His name was Alam Esomberr, and he would be bringing with him a bill of divorcement for her to sign. Thought of the occasion made her tremble.
Her letter was going to Alam Esomberr, asking for protection from her husband. Whereas a messenger on his own would be stopped by one of the king's patrols, a grubby little man with a pack animal would pass unremarked. No one inspecting the corpse would think to look for a letter.
The letter was addressed not to Envoy Esomberr but to the Holy C'Sarr himself. The C'Sarr had reason to dislike her king, and would surely give protection to a pious queen in distress.
She stood barefoot on her balcony, looking into the night. She laughed at herself, placing faith in a letter, when the whole world might be about to burn. Her gaze went to the northern horizon. There, YarapRombry's Comet burned: to some a symbol of destruction, to others of salvation. A nightbird called. The queen listened to the cry even after it had died, as one watches a knife irretrievably falling through clear water.
When she was sure that the majordomo was on his way, she returned to her couch and drew the silk curtains round it. She lay there open-eyed.
Through the gloom, the dust of the coast road showed white. ScufBar plodded beside his load, looking anxiously about. Still he was startled when a figure materialized out of the dark and called to him to halt.
The man was armed and of military bearing. It was one of King JandolAnganol's men, paid to keep an eye on all who came or went on the queen's business. He sniffed at the casket. ScufBar explained that he was going to sell the corpse.
"Is the queen that poor, then?" asked the guard, and sent ScufBar on his way.
ScufBar continued steadily, alert for sounds beyond the creak of the casket. There were smugglers along the coast, and worse than smugglers. Borlien was involved in the Western Wars against Randonan and Kace, and its countryside was often plagued by bands of soldiers, raiders, or deserters.
When he had been walking for two hours, ScufBar led the hoxney under a tree which spread its branches over the track. The track rose steeply ahead, to join the southern highroad which ran from Ottassol all the way westwards to the frontier with Randonan.
It would take the full twenty-five hours of the day to reach Ottassol, but there were easier ways of making the journey than plodding beside a loaded hoxney.
After tying the animal to the tree, ScufBar climbed into a low branch and waited. He dozed.
When the rumble of an oncoming cart roused him, he slipped to the ground and waited crouching by the highway. The aurora flickering overhead helped him to make out the traveller. He whistled, an answering whistle came, and the cart drew to a leisurely stop.
The man who owned the cart was an old friend from the same part of Borlien as ScufBar, by name FloerCrow. Every week in the summer of the small year, he drove produce from local farms to market. FloerCrow was not an outgoing man, but he was prepared to give ScufBar a lift to Ottassol for the convenience of having an extra animal to take a turn between the shafts.
The cart stopped long enough for the pack hoxney to be secured to a rear rail, and for ScufBar to scramble aboard. FloerCrow cracked the whip, and the cart lumbered forward. It was drawn by a patient drab brown hoxney.
Despite the warmth of the night, FloerCrow wore a wide-brimmed hat and thick cloak. A sword stood in an iron socket by his side. His load comprised four black piglets, persimmons, gwing-gwings, and a pile of vegetables. The piglets dangled helplessly in nets on the outside of the cart. ScufBar wedged his body against the slatted backrest, and slept with his cap over his eyes.
He roused when the wheels were making heavy weather over dried ruts. Dawn was bleaching the stars as Freyr prepared to rise. A breeze blew and brought the aromas of human habitation.
Although darkness clung to the land, peasants were already about, making for the fields. They moved shadowy and silent, the implements they carried giving an occasional clank. Their steady pace, the downward inclination of their heads, recalled the weariness that had attended their way home on the previous evening.
Male, female, young, old, the peasants progressed on various levels, some above the level of the road, some below. The landscape, as it slowly revealed itself, was composed of wedges, inclines, and walls, all of a dull brown colour, like the hoxneys. The peasants belonged to the great loess plain, which formed the central southern part of the tropical continent of Campannlat. It ran to the north, almost to the borders with Oldorando, and east to the River Takissa, where Ottassol stood. The loamy soil had been dug over by countless workers for countless years. Banks and cliffs and dams had been constructed, to be continually destroyed or rebuilt by succeeding generations. Even in times of drought like the present, the loess had to be worked by those whose destiny it was to make crops grow from dirt.
Excerpted from Helliconia Summer by Brian W. Aldiss. Copyright © 1983 Brian W. Aldiss. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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