Ambassador Avalus Berisalzon shuffles from aching foot to aching foot, thrusts his hands deeper into his pockets and wraps his snowbear fur coat closer about his body. The Great Hall is vast and magnificent but freezing cold. He stifles a sneeze as another waft of incense rises into his nostrils. His ears are ringing with the chanting of a phalanx of monks up in the gallery accompanied by tambours, cymbals and horns. They have not paused since the first hour of the day and the sun is now high in the sky, its faint rays piercing the dappled glass of the eastern clerestory.
He has been standing all morning at the end of the Hall, among the palace staff and other commoners who have given the court lifelong or outstanding service. When he first joined them, his companions eyed him warily, but were soon drawn to him by courtesy and curiosity. Eagerly they explained to him all there was to see, but their knowledge and energy have long been exhausted, and now, like the Ambassador, they stand, shifting their weight from one foot to the other, occasionally murmuring a remark to their neighbours.
Atop the dais, half a dozen broad steps above the floor beneath, the Regent sits on his gilded throne. His shoulders slump, his elbow rests on the throne’s ornately carved armrest and his cheek in his hand. He is flanked on either side by his mother and sister and his sword-bearer stands guard at his shoulder. Not for his mother the Regent’s slouch, but even her straight back has to be flagging. His sister, no less stoic than her mother, cradles her infant daughter on her lap, the poor child so exhausted with waiting that not even the cacophony above her head can disturb her sleep. The Regent and his womenfolk share the same fair hair, pale skin and light eyes, unique to the royal line, yet so strange in this court of dark-skinned, black-haired people like himself.
The Regent is surrounded by every member of the royal line, all in splendid costumes of gold and brocade. The knights, ranged in two straight rows behind him, wear jewel-encrusted ceremonial swords at their hips, their long hair in myriad braids beneath pure white hats made of the fur of the snowbear each man has hunted and killed to mark his coming of age. The ladies sit on stools on either side, their fair hair loose and crowned with a simple circlet of pure gold adorned only with incised figures tracing their royal descent. Only that of the Regent’s mother is encrusted in gemstones as befits the widow of the last Kiralus.
The long wall to the Ambassador’s right, beneath the gallery, is lined by rows of still and silent monks in heavy pikka wool robes, their arms crossed and invisible inside their voluminous sleeves. On their shaven heads, each wears a coloured skullcap denoting their order. The block in the centre wears blue for the Taivuskira, the order of the Sky God, the largest and most powerful order from which the court monks are drawn. To their right the Saluskira, the order of the Sun God, wear yellow caps and to their left are the Gairuskira, the order of the Fire God, in red caps. Among the Taivuskira, the Ambassador recognises Va Botar, the monk who was assigned to him as tutor and guide on his arrival in the capital.
A dull murmur rises from the crowd milling along the wall to the Ambassador’s left. Dressed no less splendidly than their cousins of the royal line, the nobility have been entrusted with the children, both their own and the royal line’s, even babes in arms, who cannot be allowed to miss this once in a generation event.
In the centre of the Hall is a low platform displaying an array of precious objects. There are three strings of jade prayer beads – one a deep green, one a pale lavender and one a translucent white – three bronze handbells, each crowned with a precious stone – sapphire, ruby and emerald – and three prayer shawls of cloth-of-gold, each embroidered with verses from the ancient texts.
Just as Berisalzon feels his heavy eyes closing, the tall carved wooden doors of the Hall are thrown open with a resounding crash. For a moment the chanting pauses and the murmur of the crowd ceases. A procession of monks glides into the Hall. The three at their head wear high stiff hats hung with gold tassels marking their status as Vadonus, each in one of the three colours denoting the order they govern. They pause three paces from the platform while the long row of monks entering behind them joins their brethren. Ahead of them, the Vadoni usher a small, fair-skinned boy in a miniature version of his elders’ robes. The bright, sturdy child enters the room eagerly, avid blue eyes taking in every detail, undaunted by the crowd, noise and smells.
The Vadonus Taivuskira offers the child his hand and leads him to the platform. The boy laughs to see the pretty objects. He picks up each string of prayer beads, rubs them between his hands and then gives the white set to the Vadonus who takes them without expression except to urge the child onto the handbells. The child picks up each one and gleefully rings it, then after studying them for a moment, hands up the emerald topped one. He holds each of the prayer shawls up to his cheek before passing one to the monk.
The Vadonus holds the three objects up for all to see. The chanting stops. The audience holds its breath. The Regent sits up alert, intent. The Vadonus’s voice rings out in the silence. ‘Our Kiralus has been found! He has returned to us!’
The monks repeat his words three times in unison, their massed voices vibrating the very air about them. The nobility claps and cheers and echoes the monks’ words. Horns sound and the chanting resumes. When finally the prayers end with a cacophonous fanfare, the Regent’s sister rises and leads her little daughter to the new Kiralus. Urged by her mother the child shyly kisses the Kiralus on the cheek. He frowns for a moment, then, laughing, tugs one of her long braids. She snatches at the end of his sleeve and runs away, the boy giving chase.
Her mother breathes in relief. Exchanging nods with the Vadonus, she returns to her seat and watches the children impassively. Tension and decorum dissipate as other children join in the game while their parents laugh and chat. Even the monks have broken ranks, some seeking out friends and family among the laity. On the dais, the knights and ladies of the royal line laugh and embrace. Only the Regent and his family remain silent.
‘Great days, Erra Avalus, great days.’ Berisalzon’s tutor is at his shoulder.
‘True, Va Botar, true. Great days.’
‘How did you find the Confirmation, my son?’
Berisalzon smiles at the designation. Botar might be past his middle years, but he cannot be more than a year or two older than the Ambassador. ‘It is just as you described it, Va.’
‘As it is, so it ever was…’
‘… and so it shall ever be. Yes, Va, so it seems, but I must admit I am surprised that the child chose the correct objects so… easily.’
‘Of course he would. He knew those items intimately for he had used them every day during his previous life.’
‘Of course. Forgive me for being such an obtuse student, Va.’ He pauses. ‘And you must also forgive my aging memory. Did you tell me the child’s name?
Va Botar clears his throat, for he knows he never did. ‘It is Saamar.’
‘And tell me again, I am getting so forgetful, where did you find the Kiralus Reincarnate?’
‘We finally tracked him down in Estygar Province.’
‘Estygar Province? Why, that is in the very south of the country, is it not, hundreds of leagues from the capital.’
‘Time and distance are nothing to Lord Taivus. It is his choice to be reborn there, the son of peasant fathers. And he did well in choosing so. Did you not see how healthy and sturdy the child is? Long may he reign over us. May he be ever blessed.’
‘When was he brought to Taivaros?’
‘About two phases ago. The Vadonus Taivuskira went there personally three moons ago to fetch him.’
Two phases ago, Berisalzon muses. That is about the time Botar began urging him to leave the capital and journey about the countryside, preferably to the north, though the spring melt makes the roads impassable. He remembers the way Botar pursed his lips when the Ambassador told him he had been invited to the Confirmation by the Regent himself.
Though they have been excessively polite, the clergy have made it clear to him, albeit indirectly, that they would rather he did not meet the Regent on his own or attend the Confirmation ceremony. When the invitation came, Va Botar hastily changed tack in the Ambassador’s religious training and began to instruct him in the meaning of the Confirmation ceremony so as, Berisalzon guessed, to insure he would not ‘misinterpret’ it, not suspect, perhaps, that the child had been chosen at random and carefully tutored.
‘His family will miss him,’ Berisalzon remarks, just as he is missing his own grandchildren.
‘They have been blessed and well-rewarded for raising the child. One of his fathers has accompanied him and will act at his attendant. See, there he is.’
Saamar has taken the hand of a sunburned young man and is urging him to join in his games with the other children. He joins in happily, little more than a child himself. Among them is the Regent’s niece who has shaken off her slumber and her shyness.
‘One thing I did not understand, Va Botar, is why the boy-child was so deliberately introduced to the Regent’s niece.’
‘Little Paalavi? She is destined to be his wife. The Kiralus always marries a descendent of a previous Kiralus through the female line, as is decreed. They will be married soon after the Kiralus Reincarnate is crowned when he turns sixteen.’
‘I see.’ And at that time the Regent who has sat on the throne for sixteen years must stand aside. The Ambassador wonders if he has always done so willingly. ‘And in the meantime,’ he asks instead, ‘where will the child live? Here in court?’
‘Not here, but in one of the monasteries in the capital, once he has chosen his tutors.’
‘How is a child of four to do that?’
‘He is given three sacred scrolls to choose from. The one he chooses will determine which order his tutors come from, and from there, of course, stems the choice of monastery.’
‘Just as he was tested for the Confirmation?’
‘I trust his education will be vigorous.’
‘Of course. He will be thoroughly schooled in the ancient texts, Law and Custom.’
‘I have often heard reference to Law and Custom. What is the difference?’
Va Botar seems to be coming to the end of his patience. ‘Law is written in the ancient texts, while Custom has been decreed by our ancestors.’
Berisalzon sees the monk look over his shoulder and narrow his eyes. He turns. A man in royal livery is approaching them.
‘It is the Regent’s Stolnika. I believe he has come for you.’
The Stolnika bows. ‘My lord Ambassador. The Lord Regent would speak to you. Will you follow me?’
Botar purses his lips. ‘You are indeed privileged, Erra Avalus.’
Although the Stolnika has moved a respectful distance away, Berisalzon speaks in a low voice. ‘Tell me, Va Botar. Do you know of any reason why I should distrust the Regent?’
Botar looks flustered. ‘Jalmar is an able young man.’
‘So I have heard, but nevertheless, would you advise me to be wary of him?’
Botar takes a moment too long to answer. ‘He is able and astute, Erra. It is just that he relies too heavily on his mother. It is she you should be wary of. If she were to have her way, we would be dragged back into the dark ages and the worship of false gods.’
Berisalzon bows and follows the Stolnika, smiling to himself. From the moment the Ambassador stepped foot in the kingdom he has felt dragged back into the dark ages, or at least five hundred years into the past, into an age where the greatest fear, the greatest anathema, was change. The one verse of the ancient texts Botar has pressed on him again and again is ‘As it is, so it ever was and so it shall ever be.’ It must be difficult for him to admit that there was a time in the past when things were different and other gods were worshipped. The rule of the reincarnated Kiralus has lasted for a thousand years and the kingdom is nothing if not stable, but change is coming and his very presence proves it. All around them is change, change that cannot be kept at bay, change that puts both their kingdoms in grave danger.
The Stolnika leads him to the dais and up three steps, stopping him where he still needs to look up to the seated Regent. Berisalzon bows as the Stolnika announces him. ‘The Honourable Avalus Berisalzon, Ambassador to the Royal Court of Kiralussats, appointed by the Lord Gerazon, Johtalla of Orsakanza.’
The Regent nods. ‘Great days, Ambassador, great days.’ Yet his scowl belies his joyous words. Is it disaffection the Ambassador detects in the young man’s eyes, disaffection and thwarted ambition? Or is it fear?
‘Indeed, my Lord. Great days.’
‘I’m so glad you could make it, Erra Avalus. How did you find the Confirmation?’
‘Most interesting, my Lord. And I am deeply grateful for the privilege afforded me by your invitation to attend.’
‘It is, after all, a once in a generation event. If the gods sent you here at this time, they must have wanted you to witness it.’
‘No doubt, my Lord.’
‘Let me introduce you to my family. My mother, Kiralussiva Demeni.’
The Ambassador bows deeply and straightens to meet the eyes of the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. Watching her from a distance, he was intrigued, but up close, her fair skin is luminous and her green eyes are like pools of water. Her long auburn hair, which shows no trace of white, shines in the noonday light. He has seen peasants with her colouring, their skins well-tanned and their hair matted and bleached by the sun. But what in them is steeped in the light red soil of this barren land, in her reflects the translucence of the country’s vast skies.
She is scrutinising him narrowly. ‘Welcome to Kiralussats, Ambassador. How have you found our country?’
‘Fascinating, my Lady.’ He returns her gaze and sees her eyes soften.
Jalmar turns to the young woman on his left, no less beautiful than her mother but lacking her assurance. ‘My sister, Kiralussida Surani.’
Surani nods. ‘Welcome, Ambassador.’
Jalmar indicates the man behind him. ‘Surani’s husband and my Mikkollar, Lord Heimar.’ Tall and broad-shouldered, the Mikkollar greets him with a good-natured grin which belies the fierce impression given by a long scar down his cheek. ‘Greetings, Ambassador. I wager the monks have been keeping you indoors all winter. What say we take in a bit of hunting now the weather’s eased? The first herd of tarabeast should be coming through soon.’
‘I would love to ride out with you, my Lord, but my hunting days are long over.’
‘Not to worry. You can still enjoy a good hard ride. I’ll let you know when next we venture out.’
‘I shall look forward to it, my Lord.’
‘My dear boy,’ Demeni intervenes, ‘I’m sure the Ambassador has better things to do than go chasing about the countryside. He is a courtier and a scholar. Hear how quickly he has mastered our language.’
‘It was not too difficult, my Lady, once I realised that our languages, like our religions, have common roots.’
‘Then you have found much that is familiar in Kiralussats.’
‘Much that is familiar, yes, but much, too, that is wondrous, my Lady.’
Demeni meets his eye for a moment, then looks away with a smile.
‘My Lord Ambassador,’ the Regent says. ‘I ask your forgiveness that I have not been able to meet with you since your arrival. I am afraid I have been much distracted by the search for the Kiralus Reincarnate. Can I make up for my neglect and invite you to dine with us tomorrow night?’
Berisalzon bows. ‘It would be a great honour, my Lord.’
‘Good. I have many questions to ask you. I shall send the Stolnika for you at… let us say the second hour of the night.’
With a gesture, Jalmar signals the Stolnika to lead the Ambassador away. He too has many questions for Jalmar he can never ask Botar, and much to ponder on. Once on ground level he turns to give one more bow and is gratified to find the Lady Demeni’s eyes on him.
© Pauline Montagna 2022