Signs & Portents





Chapter 6

A Rose Red City, Half as Old as Time

When he stepped onto his roof Balen realized they were at it again. He stared morosely at the men on Harmeg's roof across the way. They were waving poles against the sultry night sky, apparently in the process of aligning their weird looking rods with the permanently mounted ones that already adorned Harmeg's roof.

"Stargazing!" He muttered to himself in a tone redolent with disgust.

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He would have spat after saying the word, stargazing, but another consideration had occurred to him—they appeared to be quite oblivious to his presence and he just might overhear something useful if they remained unaware of his presence.

One tall lanky individual gawked right in his direction, but he quickly shrank further into the moonlight-formed shadow of the taller building which adjoined his own roof. Judging by their continuing preoccupation with their own labors, he concluded they were still not aware of him, most of their attention seemed to be focusing in the direction away from his own house.

He listened intently. Their voices reached his ears and he thought he could detect a tone of excitement in them, but he could not make out a single word. They were just slightly out of range of good hearing unless they spoke a little louder. He waited patiently, but no inclination for the stargazers to speak louder allowed him to hear anything but indecipherable fragments of the conversation on Harmeg's roof.

Disgusted, he finally slung his sleeping mat over his shoulder and noisily descended the ladder back into his house, muttering imprecations against those who disturbed a hot night's rest. He did not deign to glance at the offending roof to see if his departure was observed.

Inside, he found another annoyance. Where was that boy now, he wondered sourly. Out amusing himself and taking his ease again, no doubt. The facility with which his apprentice managed to never be around when needed exasperated him. If it were not for Balen's own uncertain fortunes, he would have considered getting rid of his misbegotten student. But just now, the occasional stipend of fresh fish from the boy's parents sometimes came in handy.

A humiliating incident had taken place at the High King's hall, and the embarrassing result left Balen with no choice but to discreetly absent himself from he had once considered as his proper place among the seers of the High King's Hall. Until the episode began to fade from memories at court, he felt it wiser not to exert himself to be reinstated. But it left him greatly reduced in income, dependent on the occasional bit of trade from the private sector. In years past, he had read the High King's dreams, once preventing a major treachery of the Achaeans, and he had seen many another secret in the depths of his divining cup. He tried to console himself that he would not be forgotten. It was best for a professional of his stature to await a summons, or better yet, for an occasion when a problem came up that was too difficult or delicate for the rest of them to handle. He had been shocked to realize that Harmeg's tomfoolery with stargazing was becoming quite a fad at the palace. Sheer idiocy, that was. What did the stars have to do with human destiny? That mystery could be found only in the depths of the cup or by deciphering the meaning of the king's dreams. The ways of the stars were the ways of gods, and were quite separate from the ways of men.

He fumbled at the kettle, deciding to prepare his own tea and burned his fingers. Thrice be damned an unreliable servant and pitiful the fate of man, who was saddled with one because he no son of his own. But he managed his tea, and wakeful now, sought out his divining cup. Filling it with water from the jar—at least the boy had filled that—he added black inky dye and stirred. Staring into the swirling patterns, he evoked his sight, hoping to make out the shape of his own future. But the images surfacing in his sight were bizarre and incomprehensible. Two peculiarly garbed armies were battling with their bare hands before a great stone temple whose pillared facade seemed to soar into the sky.

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The two sides pushed and shoved, mouths agape with battle cries, neither of them gaining ground. As Balen watched, six huge black beetles began to approach the battle. He focused his attention on these monsters, discovering they moved on thick black chariot wheels. They stopped well back from the battle and waited motionless, suggesting to Balen that they were carrion eaters of some kind, waiting to swoop on the dead. Confirming Balen's apprehensive feeling about the monsters, suddenly, he saw a man emerging from a crack in the side of one. Balen shuddered and moaned, horrified, watching the man approach another of the beetles, bending toward it for long minutes.When he turned away, he looked directly toward Balen with eyes that were huge and slick like the skin of a beetle. Balen cried out in spite of the fact that he realized that it was one of the flukes of the cup that it occasionally produced wild dreamlike visions for which there was no explanation. He returned to it again but as though the strange sight had drained his strength away, he could see nothing but vague flickering images. Eventually, he gave it up as a bad job and flung his sleeping mat back across the thong laced bed rack. He would still have preferred the coolness of the roof for relief from the heat, but knew he could not sleep through the disturbances across the way.

He was snoring by the time his apprentice crept stealthily through the door and sought his own place beside the hearth. The young man, Papalos, his demeanor radiating dutiful efficiency, served him steaming tea and figs when he awoke after a fitful night's sleep.

"Where were you last night?" he growled to indicate he was not deceived or mollified by this sudden display of deference and dependability.

"I went to the market," lied the boy glibly, "and I saw many ships at the port. So I thought it best to stay for awhile and make sure that everyone heard of my master's most excellent sight. I went just to buy a little goat's milk for the master's breakfast, but it was all sold before I came."

Papalos had been in the market street, but his time there had been spent making contact with his friends, apprentices who likewise slipped away to swim in the canal and play among the dolphins. The dolphin master was a good natured man, who smiled at the affinity between young men of their age and his aquatic charges. But the visit to the market had produced an enchanting bit of information which should serve as an attention distracter, and Papalos waited for the proper moment to insert it into the discussion of last night's dereliction.

Balen eyed him balefully, grimacing his discontent, but his attention seemed to be wavering away from pursuing Papalos's dereliction any further. Papalos weighed the thought of reserving his tidbit against a future need, but decided that it would not keep. His master was keenly interested in all that transpired in the city of Lanatos and might learn of it from some other source and he would therefore not get the credit for discovering it.

"Master, I heard a wonderful thing," he offered.

He slyly waited to be prodded into further comment, a mannerism which he cultivated of late. Balen found this more exasperating every day and gave him only an admonishingly raised eyebrow for his pains.

"There were shepherds," Papalos went on, "who came from very high in the hills.

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They had found a place up there where the ground burned by itself. Sheep that wandered onto that place had died—and a boy died too. One of them said that it was a place where smoke came up from beneath the world. He said he will never go back to the mountains because bad spirits from under the world are loose in them now."

Balen snorted his rejection of such a tale, but he was a little intrigued in spite of himself. Was it possible to turn such a tale to advantage, he wondered, or might it even be harbinger of a situation where his own talents would be needed again?

"But Master, it is true," protested Papalos, noticing that his story was not being received with the same enthusiasm that some tidbit of gossip about goings on in the High King's hall would be.

"Look," he decided quickly to surrender up a small treasure trove he had intended to keep for himself. He swiftly untied a knot in his tunic and extended some blackened chunks of stone for Balen's examination. "They brought back some stones from the place to show everyone. The stones were glowing red when they got them, but became cold again away from that place."

The stones did indeed have an odd charred appearance, and crumbled easily at the touch, Balen saw. But he could see no reason they could not have come from any shepherd's cook fire. A probable explanation for the tale occurred to him. Rustics were a superstitious lot, no doubt they had simply come upon a burned out brush fire and created an imaginary set of miracles around it. Balen flung the charred objects into the hearth scornfully.

It was good to keep up appearances these days and it was time for his walk to the Lanatos Library where he always took himself on Khorsdays to commune with his fellow citizens and learn useful matters. He arose and begin to dress himself with especial care.

Bedecked in his best finery, he began his stately dignified passage down the street. As he walked, he began to fantasize a scene in which he firmly squelched Harmeg, who in his mind's eye, was making much of the burning ground story in front of the High King. No doubt, Harmeg would maintain that it was all caused by a star fallen to earth. Balen had heard of such things himself.

"Well, yes, Great One," he would say slyly to the High King, who beamed his pleasure and confidence at him at his first words. "I did hear that some ruffians, who had been frightened by a brush fire, came into the city. But I, myself, did not think it worth taking up the Great One's time to tell such a story."

Well, of course, he reflected in a more realistic vein. The memory of his own humiliation was still fresh at the present time. So it would be awhile before he returned to the court. But if not immediately, there would be some occasion to show up Harmeg as a fool and charlatan. All the same, he thought fretfully, perhaps he should have reminded that wretchedly unreliable boy again where he could be found on Khorsdays. If by chance, a summons did come, he could return vindicated and remain secure, provided he solved the problem for which he had been summoned. Actually, he reflected, this was a bad time for him to be absent from court and unable to exert his influence on Lanatoan affairs. Something strange and ominous, but as yet nascent and unformed, did seem be stirring in Lanatos. He had been sensing it for some time now, but could not bring it into his sight. Perhaps, well only perhaps, of course, this silly burning earth tale was an expression of it.

Halfway down the winding street, he paused to survey the port city that was his home. The circular walls of triple walled Lanatos gleamed in the early morning sun with the metallic overlay that high kings of former generations had laid on them. Between the waterfalls flowed the canals that allowed in the wine-dark waters of the sea. Lanatos was a jewel among the cities of Minos, situated on the perfectly round island, called because of this shape, just "round."

Balen would not trade his home here, even for the fabled splendors of the capital city on the large island which was the hub of the kingdom, some hundred miles to the south. Travelers on the wine-dark sea spoke respectfully of the main island's metropolis because of the power of the highest king, who controlled the sea lanes and whose palace was considered a legend. But it was of beautiful Lanatos on the round island that they rhapsodized and boasted that they had once visited.

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