Signs & Portents
And This First Summer Month that Brings the Rose
Many scholarly citizens strolled the main public reading room of the Lanatos library which was the largest in the world. Balen scanned the sea of faces, searching for a familiar one. He saw no one that he considered friendly, but he easily spotted Harmeg still accompanied by a small cluster of fellow stargazers. The foreign stargazer appeared to be ceremoniously depositing a new roll of finest Egyptian paper which Balen could only suppose might have come from the High King's hall.
A report of the day's business in the King's hall was usually written up and brought to the library. Had Harmeg now become custodian of this function? If he got a chance later, Balen decided to investigate the roll's contents. In the meantime, he saw Harpolos, the Achaean philosopher, who ran a small pottery shop on the Lanatos waterfront. He was not overly fond of the man but preferred to appear occupied, if he was in turn noticed by the stargazer contingent. Harpolos was always good for a long conversation. Amidst the gossip about the comings and goings along the Water wall street, he heard in much greater detail about the shepherds who came down from the hills with their tale about the burning earth.
Circumspectly, he withheld his own assessment of that, for he had long ago learned that Harpolos was a conveyor of communications, not a keeper of confidences. The good thing about a chat with the Achaean was that it required only an occasional nod or sound of affirmation to keep the flow ongoing, the bad thing was that it was difficult to insert much else. Eventually, however, he witnessed the departure of Harmeg's party over the Achaean's shoulder and he took his leave of Harpolos.
He began to sidle unobtrusively toward the new roll whose position he had memorized and it was thus he bumped into his bosom friend, Ibar. Ibar was sympathetic to Balen's problems and he found himself unburdening himself of his disappointments, the roll forgotten for the time. It was Ibar who called it back to mind. He, too, had seen Harmeg make the deposit.
His confidence somewhat restored by companionable discourse, Balen cast subterfuge to the winds and the two friends boldly approached the roll and unrolled it as any free citizen of Lanatos was entitled to do. Balen scanned it, skipping over the more mundane recitations, it was indeed the palace's usual business report. But unexpectedly, his eye perceived what his heart at first refused to believe.
It stated that in "the month of Ardaveo, in the 17th year of Minos XXII, Harmeg, the astronomer, had foretold that a terrible doom lay in the future for the city of Lanatos. This doom would 'affect the whole world and many of future generations would weep for Lanatos.' Balen skipped over the nonsensical astrological comments, there would be 'fires in the sky and darkening at noon,' sheer gibberish, until he caught a key remark: 'the ground would burn of itself.'
He exulted. Could it be? Had Harmeg overstepped himself at last? The High King would not like prophecies of doom and destruction to his own city. And Balen's nose smelled a plot in it somewhere. He began to suspect that Harmeg had indeed erred badly. The Lanatoans and their king were a pragmatic practical people not given to wild alarms and magical solutions. He believed he saw the way of it. First, make a fantastic and terrifying prediction, then just as the gullible are starting to hear of it and talk, witnesses whom you have hired appear with a wild story that seems to confirm your prophecy.
Naturally, you, who foresaw the whole thing, are importuned to find a solution. With much drama, you retire to think it over. After a suitable interval, you return with a plan to propitiate this god and that spirit. The doom is lifted, naturally, all are saved, and also naturally, your reputation is made and your purse is full. Can the king do less than give you your just deserts?
Balen did not resort to such trickeries himself, of course, those with the true sight had no need of them. But what Harmeg did not know was that this was not the first time such a trick had been tried in Lanatos.
Certain foreigners showed up every year or so with some variation of it. And the results had never been favorable to such opportunistic would-be seers.
Balen was fairly sure now that the moment had come for his return to the king's audience room. But first, a bit of investigation—he would see if those shepherds could still be found. Happily, his research had to go no further than Harpolos, who always kept track of such things. He reported that the lot of them had taken ship for Achaea! Very strange behavior for simple shepherds, but the most satisfactory bit of news was that they had first gone to see a wise man. What wise man? Why Harmeg, the astrologer, of course, the same one who even now strutted before the High King.
Balen, trailed by Ibar, began to make his way up the sloping streets to the hilltop palace of the High King. They made their way unimpeded through the splendid gates embossed with the sacred Labryos. Balen was still well known to the guards, the captain had only glanced at him and did not hurry forward to demand his business. His exile had been voluntary, but what choice for a seer whose predicament is found humorous by the majority of the court? Nothing so downgrades the reputation of a seer as a snicker muffled behind a hand. His predicament had been engineered by the foreign stargazer.
Gathering his dignity around him, he slowed to a slow stroll as he neared the audience room, forcing the trailing Ibar to slacken his own pace. He gave no thought to Ibar's reception, the High King's family of courtiers was large and one more, more or less, made little difference as a rule. A nervous cough behind him indicated Ibar did not fully share his confidence, but he lifted his hand in a signal for silence. He needed his full concentration for the task ahead.
He saw that the audience chamber was, as usual, fairly full, a grand mixture of supplicants, disputants, merchants, entertainers, a smaller number of wise men, who for one reason or another had the king's ear, and even younger and less important members of the king's own family. It was the policy of this Minos to devote a certain amount of time each day to each activity as the need indicated.
With a thrill, part fear, part anticipation, he saw Harmeg approach the throne. The High King sometimes talked informally with the corps of advisors. It was impossible to hear over the background noise of private conversation in the room. It was also too late to catch the chamberlain's ear. This doughty individual now stood in his customary place behind the throne, where he would lean forward from time to time to remind or inform the king about the press and flow of the day's business. Any who had legitimate business could usually gain entry here, always getting heard was another matter, but there was always tomorrow for those with chronic complaints. All the same, he was careful not to give offense as he edged forward, so attracted only a minimum of frowns and curious stares. At last, he could hear the drone of Harmeg's voice.
"Yes, Great One, the art is very old. Wise men have studied it for 400,000 years. It is infallible. Kings of many nations have sought to learn the future from those skilled in its application."
Balen gazed steadily at the High King's face, trying to gauge his reaction, but found the countenance of Minos completely impassive. He lost a bit of the stargazer's speech and strained to hear the rest.
"Were it only myself, gladly would I give some more happy fate for the Great One's sake. However, the Great One will understand my plight. Having no control over the direction of the art, shall I keep quiet when it has foretold some dire event? Is it not my duty to speak straight forwardly to the Great One's munificent ear so that worse harm might be averted?"
At this point, Minos lifted his hand. It was the silent signal that he had heard enough and would himself now speak. The chamberlain strained forward, it was his duty to restrain those who showed no restraint. It was a rebuke in itself that the High King had cut short his recitation, Harmeg fell back.
This Minos was a hard one to read and consequently kept his courtiers on their toes. Outwardly, he was a bland gentle mannered man, who went through his audiences with a motionless face. But those who had depended on his affability were sometimes rudely disabused of such presumption.
Beneath his exterior, he was shrewd, proud, some said ambitious, and utterly dedicated to his role. He was the Highest King's nephew, so entitled to use the royal name Minos in this office of under king, and where others might have used an additional or different name, he styled himself only "Minos." Some interpreted this is a signal that he sought to supersede the royal sons in the succession to the highest throne. The reality was quite otherwise, however, the height of his ambition was and had been Lanatos. But this city of the sea, single and capital city of round island, he loved and intended to keep both secure and under his own authority. In his first royal office as Lord Admiral of the Highest King's navy, he had methodically swept the Minoan sea lanes free of pirates, a task that had stymied many another before him. Now in his middle years, the kingship of Lanatos was his justly deserved reward.
His eyes strayed over the room. He had found the astrologer amusing, he had even been charmed when certain of the man's predictions turned out to be uncannily accurate. As an old seaman, he did believe in certain signs and portents. He was secretly perturbed now, least this uncanny quality attach itself to the man's latest pronouncements. But he was careful to give no outward sign of anxiety, that would not become a king. His eyes caught and vaguely recognized Balen—the astrologer had caught this one out in some scandal, he couldn't recall what it had been now. And yet, this old one had served his predecessor, and hadn't it been this one who had ferreted out the Achaean scheme to cheat Lanatos of a whole cargo? He made a sudden decision. Minos now made a tiny signal to the chamberlain, who adept at following the direction of the king's attention, leaned forward and murmured in his ear.
"He is Balen, Lord King, he practices the old Minoan art of the cup and pool. He served Hatamakin Minos, 20 years, Your Greatness, 3 years, he has been absent 6 months because the astrologer found out that he..."
Minos broke off the recitation of Balen's history at this point with a movement of his little finger, preferring not to waste further time on it.
"Balen," spoke the High King of Lanatos in a cordial tone, almost as if the two were friends who had met on the street. "We notice that it has been sometime since we saw your face in this hall. We hope you have been well. No doubt you have sought the fate of Lanatos for long hours in the cup. Come forward and tell us what you say about this matter."
Balen's heart did a flip-flop in his breast. The honor was so direct, so special and unexpected, he struggled with his breath, and feared words might fail him. But his long years in this room rescued him and his wits were soon about him again. By the time the many pairs of curious and envious eyes had located him in the room, he was gracefully sliding forward, bowing deeply, murmuring that the Great One did him too much honor.
As he took up his stance, the proud and correct one for an advisor, slightly to the king's right, rather than directly in the front center, his strategy was already forming in his mind.
"I have seen great good fortune for Lanatos. So great, it's name will certainly live forever."
"There others who might not agree with you. Lately, it has come to our ears that evil tidings are in store for Lanatos. It is good to hear that you don't agree." Minos raised his voice on that last phrase.
"I presume the Great One refers to this story of the burning earth?" he began rhetorically, a shrewd twinkling gleam coming into his eyes. Minos regarded him encouragingly.
"Well, actually I've just learned this morning that there are some who say that Lanatos is doomed. But then, there have always been those who like to say such things." he continued waxing loquacious. "Well, of course, the Great One knows that I have seen nothing of the doom of Lanatos in the cup, but if the Great One will forgive my bringing up such a matter, my servant boy told me of some shepherds who had fled the hills because—so they said—they found the ground up there was on fire!"
He paused here for effect and his audience regarded him solemnly. Minos experienced an instant's regret he had allowed him to ramble on.
"Of course, this tale sounded very strange, especially as sensible shepherds are not usually inclined to become terrified of a brush or grass fire which might, of course, explain this 'burning earth.' I did look at the little rocks my boy got from them and saw they were only ordinary stones taken from a cook fire. But nothing could equal my surprise when I read the exact duplicate of this story in the Day Report at the library and learned that the stargazer, Harmeg, had issued a prediction of this in the king's hall!"
He paused again for effect and his audience waited spellbound, apart from Minos, who feared that he might be in some treacherous current. But an instinct that told him to trust the old man.
"Great One, I said to myself, I must find these shepherds and find out what sort of fellows they are."
Again he broke off to let this point implant itself in his audience's minds. Minos smiled another small smile, he believed he had caught sight of port after a long voyage.
"Great One," the wily old one continued, "I had just left the library to seek out these shepherds when I chanced to meet the Achaean, Harpolos, a fellow of whom I have some slight acquaintance. Harpolos, I asked, have you seen these shepherds who tell a strange story about the earth on the hills taking fire? 'Why yes,' he answered me, 'you must mean those strange fellows who came to the market place and told their story to everyone who would stand still and listen. They went to see the stargazer Harmeg, then they sailed off to Achaea on the Achaean ship.'"
Balen's twinkling eyes pierced the now perplexed figure of Harmeg. The astrologer squirmed, but attempted not to look discomfited in what, he suspected, was indeed a coming doom.
"To Achaea? Since when do Minoan shepherds go off to Achaea? That is very strange indeed! Were they Achaeans like yourself? But why would Achaeans be shepherding in our hills? A very strange business. Well, the fellow became very evasive, but he allowed that apparently they were Achaeans like himself."
He boldly stared at Harmeg making sure all saw the direction of his gaze and then stopped speaking. The audience waited in stunned silence for an instant. Then some of the quicker ones laughed openly, while others began to inquire of their neighbors the point of the story and ultimately, more and more amused attention began to focus on Harmeg and a few wisecracks were called out to him. He bore it with dignity, even when Minos also favored him with a look of what might have been a veiled warning.
"No doubt some explanation for the mystery will be found. The trouble with such predictions and predictors is that they often become adhered to such stories. Even when the doom has not come to pass, they ever seek to find new evidence, or perhaps small mistakes in their calculations, that prove that they were right, only a little off in their timing!"
He had by this time gained a small audience of admiring titterers, happy to listen to such an able raconteur. Even Minos evinced one of his rare smiles.
The chamberlain leaned forward to confer and announced in a ringing tone, "The High King will now hear disputes and give judgment. All not having this kind of business might withdraw."
The last was not normal policy, but only to quiet the room. There was no doubt that Balen's challenge of Harmeg had caused quite a stir. The usually softer sound of conversations in the room had risen to such a volume that it threatened to drown out the throne's business. Fingers pointed out Harmeg, guffaws and genuine merriment swirled around the unfortunate stargazer's head. Obvious gestures of disrespect were flung in his direction.
Balen considered taking a place with the other advisors, but while he had been singled out by the king, he had not been formally summoned again to stand in the court in that role.
He decided that the best protocol was to withdraw, hoping the king would take it for a gesture of modesty. He saw some of the other advisors were also electing to withdraw, probably to gossip about his accusation of Harmeg. He was gratified to see Harmeg leaving, surrounded by other foreigners of the star gazing contingent. He fervently hoped that the stargazer was departing the palace. Balen himself had no such intention, he was bound for the garden where the more important waited for a possible summons to the audience room. As he left, many of his former colleagues now smiled at him and extended discreet greetings, a good sign that he was vindicated at last.
No summons came as he waited out the afternoon in the garden, passing the time chatting with Ibar, but he was unperturbed. The High King was a busy man, but not usually a forgetful one. In any case, there was one last possible sign of his readmittance into the ranks of the king's favored and he was determined to wait it out. A servant came, curtsied and sang out the formula. He had been bidden to supper at the king's own table. Now he could rejoice completely, it was the mark of total acceptance. The Lanatoan Minos entertained lavishly, but in such a crowded court only the most important and
favored could be asked to the evening meal.
At the king's table, there could be no sneaking in an extra diner, so Ibar and Balen parted, Balen calling after his friend special instructions to be given to his apprentice for the big day tomorrow.
Balen found himself rather far down the tables, but he had expected no more on this first occasion. He was mildly annoyed to see Harmeg turning out for the meal and still at a higher place among the guests. He was apparently of a mind to brazen it out, rather than depart discreetly.
Ah well, it mattered not at all to Balen. He refused to envy or any other distressing thought in this, his hour of redemption. The huge banquet hall faced the Lanatoan hills with a wide expanse of open balcony fronting it. Balen was seated with his back to this open space and the balmy evening breeze blowing out to sea caressed him. He addressed himself to the choice viands that servants placed before him. It had been a long while since he had tasted fare like this. So engrossed was he in selecting choice morsels that he was startled to hear Minos suddenly speak, his tone mildly chiding.
"Tell us then, Harmeg, what is this business you have with Achaean shepherds?"
Balen was at once alert. Apparently, the High King had decided to not allow the disgraced one's obstinate presence to pass unnoticed. Harmeg's voice rose plaintively.
"The fellows did but come to me because they had heard about my prediction which was stated for all to hear, Great One. Having seen the certain sign of it, they believed. They inquired only where in the world they might be safe. And I told them that the heavens seemed to favor Achaea."
"Achaea," mused the High King dryly, "Achaea is to be spared, but not Lanatos? We must try to learn the secret of their luck."
He laughed loudly. There was ready laughter at this along the table and loud guffaws as certain individuals attempted to be the one to laugh loudest at the king's wit.
Balen craned his neck to view Harmeg's distress but the laughter died quite abruptly. Gradually, he became aware that every eye at the table was now focusing on himself. The dinner guests had strange expressions on their faces. He looked in the king's direction and found Minos also gazing at him, a most unfathomable expression in his eyes. Something appeared to be wrong, but what? Finally, he realized that they were looking not at him, but past him to something else.
Relieved, he turned around to discover the fascination. Clearly visible on the horizon of the hilltops, great plumes of yellow flame were shooting up from the ground. One after the other, they shot up, higher and higher, then died down. The late evening sky was aglow with the pyrotechnic display. Alarm might have seized the dinner guests except for the fact that the phenomena was distant, and at least, was not advancing.
Balen craned his neck to see what Harmeg's reaction might be, but apparently he had left the table.
A distinct awkwardness had been created at the king's table. The others were caught between the fact that the king had expressed open disapproval of Harmeg's prophecy and the fact that the most blatant kind of proof was being displayed against the night sky. After his first long look, the High King decided to take no further notice of the flare ups. The meal continued in silence, amid many discreet and silent departures. Before the meal ended, the breeze had wafted the distant smell of burning sulfur into the room.
Morning a thousand Roses brings, you say