Castles in the Air, Part 2
The Ethereal Legion settled into a steady gallop, meaning to reach Castellanus, the home and castle of the Sky King, by sunset. They streaked down the road to Castellanus like arrows to their target, with the hooves of their mounts kicking up a wedge of blue dust that followed faithfully in their wake.
The road was a major thoroughfare, with the Legion passing several caravans of merchants and their carts laden with crops or handicrafts, and well-to-do travelers gliding by in ornately decorated cloud-white coaches. At regular intervals along the road, the Legionnaires passed guard posts where they exchanged salutes with the sentries posted there by ricocheting their right fist off their left shoulder and then outstretching their right arm.
Owing to the fact that his Sun-and-Moon amulet made Master Galwynn a welcome temporary resident of Sky, the landscape surrounding him that was normally invisible to residents of Land, was now revealed. Galwynn was amazed that his view of everything he beheld, be it near or far, was as crystal clear as his view on Land after an evening storm washes the air pure and clean.
The vast dome of the Upper Reaches was like the interior of a cathedral’s cupola. And as the dome’s sides arched down from its zenith to its horizon, its dark cerulean heights faded to a bright azure sky.
The azure sky blended into an endless blue terrain, the same way the blue horizon seen from the deck of a sailing ship blends into the endless blue sea. And in the same way the surface of the sea can sometimes be transparent enough to see the fishes swimming below, the terrain of Sky was sometimes transparent enough to see the Land lying below, revealing its hills, dales, rivers, villages, and farms.
The Legion rode past fields where farmers paused in their labors to wipe their brows and note the phalanx of soldiers thundering by. It was harvest-time and the farmers’ fields were thick with rain-wheat and sun-corn. In Galwynn’s preparations for this mission, he read that the sale of weather was a major item of trade between Land and Sky. Farmers from Sky would harvest their crops, take them to market, and brokers would sell them to weather wizards and enterprising merchants of Land. Then throughout the year, the merchants would mill the crops into good weather for sale.
During spring, the merchants would mill rain-wheat into showers to irrigate their customers’ farmland. During summer, they would mill sun-corn into long, lazy days of good growing weather. And during autumn and winter, when the icy talons of the Lower Reaches grew long enough to scar the hillsides with snow, a shrewd merchant could make a pretty penny milling the sun-corn they held back in reserve and selling a few unseasonably warm days in the bleakest months of the year.
If an artist were to paint a landscape of Land, his palette would contain shades of earth tones, gold, and emerald green. But if an artist were to paint a landscape of Sky, her palette would contain only shades of blue, white, and a drop of Emperor Sun’s golden yellow.
The skyriders occasionally paused to briefly rest their steeds, but it wasn’t until midday when they stopped for a long break and a hot meal. The company slowed to a trot as they rode over a misty rainbow bridge that arced across a turbulent river frosted with whitecaps and foam. On the other side, the Legion trotted a short distance downstream and then made camp. The experienced riders climbed off their mounts easily, none the worse for their long ride, and stretched their limbs with contented grunts. On the other hand, Kevin Galwynn slid painfully off Zephyr, slowly straightened his bent frame, and then stiffly looked around.
A rider or two tossed Kevin a disdainful glance and then quickly ignored him as they turned to prepare their midday meals. They opened saddlebags of rations, collected fresh water from the river, and gathered stray pieces of lightning-wood to start campfires. Soon the electric buzz, spark, and crackle of lightning-wood fires filled the camp, and the purplish smoke from the flames made the air smell as if after a thunderstorm. Handfuls of dried grain, herbs, and jerky were tossed into boiling water, and shortly thereafter the smell of burning lightning-wood wafting across the camp was replaced by the aroma of hot stew.
Kevin sat alone at the edge of the camp, but not by choice. The Sky King was busy with his council, and Lt. Nimbus was busy speaking with his captain, which left Kevin “busy” wondering how much longer he would be shunned by the Legionnaires. Galwynn nodded and smiled in a friendly manner whenever a Legionnaire passed by, but no one acknowledged his overture, or offered him either company or hospitality. The skyriders kept to their own campfires and comrades, and Kevin could only guess the reason for their rebuffs. Kevin was already unhappy about being on this journey. Now he felt like an outcast too.
“Where is Nimbus?” Kevin grumpily wondered to himself. Galwynn had been given no rations of his own and the smell of hot stew tormented his empty belly. Not to mention that his body ached, his stomach growled, and his loneliness sharpened. Kevin could think of no time in recent memory when he was more miserable at heart.
Kevin decided to take his mind off his troubles by walking along the riverbank downstream from his camp. Eventually he came upon a large boulder hanging over the ethereal water. He clambered on top, sat down, took in the beauty of the river, and tried to ignore his nagging stomach and uncivil traveling companions.
The rippling water reflected by turns the deep blue of the Upper Reaches, the glittering gold sunlight, and the sparkle of thousands of rainbows where the stream broke over jutting rocks. But Kevin was reminded that this was not an earthly tributary when the river, in places, became as transparent as a sheet of ice on the surface of a pond in winter. His view did not stop at the river’s bottom in those lucent regions, but went through and beyond to the Land below. Without notice, his spirits lifted as rippling farms and hamlets swam by like rare, exotic fish.
“There you are,” said a relieved voice from behind Master Galwynn. Kevin turned to see Lt. Nimbus climb onto his boulder, take a self-conscious glance at this fellow Legionnaires in the distance, and then dutifully sit down beside Galwynn. Nimbus reminded Kevin of a lad that would rather be playing with his friends, but had been told by his parents to make nice with the new child in the village.
“You must be starving,” said Nimbus. “Care for some stew?” The lieutenant explained that officers were served by a mess sergeant, and his captain had sent Nimbus back to his camp with two oversized mugs of stew for himself and their honored guest, Master Galwynn.
“Thank you,” said Kevin as he practically dove into his meal. It was a strange comestible in that its consistency was appetizingly thick and substantial, but its taste was thin and uninspired, as if it was mere broth.
“Try some of this,” Nimbus said, as he handed Kevin a pouch of powdered herbs.
Kevin recognized that the herbs were a product of Land: the scent of bay leaves, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and sage delighted his nose. He shook a little of the seasonings on the stew and was amazed at how the spices affected the meal well beyond their portion. Earthly spices seemed to magically transform the astral, giving the watery ethereal meal pungency and savor. Which was why spices were among the most valuable items tradesmen of Land could offer the denizens of Sky.
“Ooh, that’s hot,” Kevin said, between puckering his lips and smiling, “but good.” He blew animatedly on his meal for a while until it was cool enough to eat comfortably.
Kevin cast a glance at the other skyriders. Between mouthfuls of hot stew and hard bread, he said, casually, “Your kinsmen don’t seem to like me very much, Lieutenant. Do you know why?”
For a moment, Nimbus debated whether he should be candid. But in the end, his pledge to faithfully offer assistance to Master Galwynn in any way necessary, demanded frankness. “It’s not really you they’re uneasy with,” he said slowly, as if the words were so reluctant to leave his mouth, that his tongue had to push each syllable past his pale lips.
Aaron said, “Many of my older comrades were young squires or pages during the War Between Land and Sky. We younger soldiers aren’t old enough to remember those times, but our elder comrades frequently tell us heroic and harrowing tales about their exploits in those days.” Aaron paused thoughtfully for a moment. “But every time they tell us one of their noble, or glorious, or valiant stories about the War, I can’t help hearing an undertone of pain and suffering and horror from that conflict that hoarsens their voices to this day.” Then Aaron mused aloud, probably revealing more of his private thoughts than he intended, “I think sometimes, wounded spirits heal more slowly than wounded flesh.”
“If they heal at all,” Galwynn amended, softly.
Nimbus looked at Galwynn intently for a long while, contemplating the few simple words he had said. Then he caught himself staring and self-deprecatingly declared, “But what do I know? I’m just a knight errant, not a sage.”
Kevin harrumphed, as he dipped a crust of bread into his stew. “Perhaps not a sage,” Master Galwynn agreed between chews, “but definitely more than a mere knight errant.” Then he returned to savoring his lunch.
Aaron and Galwynn sat on the river rock for a long while, satiated by their meals, deep in thought, and not feeling a need at the moment to say anything to the other. From time to time, however, Nimbus did glance furtively at Galwynn before quickly turning back, and then wondering about the man he was sworn to protect. While he pondered, his already narrow eyes narrowed more; and his thin mouth, which was puckered in concentration, veered up toward his ear.
Nimbus couldn’t make up his mind about this portly Landsman. Veteran Legionnaires he had served with, fought alongside, and respected, vehemently told the younger soldiers that the Landfolk were dishonorable, cowardly, and cruel. In truth, Master Galwynn didn’t seem as august as a chamberlain, or as valiant as a knight, or as formidable as a sorcerer. In fact, he seemed to be little more than a reader of books who could barely keep himself ahorse. And yet, Nimbus knew Galwynn was in Sky because of whispers that the world stood on the brink of destruction. If that was so, Aaron thought, then of what use was a Master of Enlightenment?
Galwynn noticed the lieutenant’s quizzical expression, but when Nimbus failed to speak, Kevin asked, “Do I have food on my chin?”
“What? Oh, no, there’s nothing!” Aaron blurted. “Sorry to stare,” he added, feeling foolish. “I was just wondering about your title. We don’t have anyone with an office quite like yours in Sky. I was just wondering, what does a ‘Master of Enlightenment’ do?”
“I know things for the King,” answered Galwynn, as if that explained everything. Eating a hot meal helped Kevin’s mood, but he was still feeling crotchety.
“You mean you study books and such?”
“Not quite, although I do read a great deal,” Galwynn replied. The unabated look of bewilderment on Aaron’s face prompted Kevin to be more forthcoming.
“A king expresses his will in many ways: laws, edicts, and sometimes even wars. But these are useless without knowledge of the world in general, and his kingdom in particular. I am that knowledge.
“I know practical things, like how many acres of grain were planted last spring and how many bushels will be harvested this fall. I know the number and condition of every piece of armament in the kingdom. I know which allies are steadfast and which are irresolute.
“I know impractical things, like how many times the old sigh over their vanished youth, and how many lullabies were sung by young mothers to their babies last night.
“I know wondrous things, like why flying-fish fly, mermaids sing, demons skulk, and children giggle.
“And I know things of ominous portent, like how many stars are in the sky tonight—and how that count is one less than it was a fortnight ago.
“I know these things when they happen, as they happen, whether they occur nearby in the kingdom or in the most distant corner. All this is I make available to my king at his request.”
There was a note of incredulity in Aaron’s voice when he asked, “You know when things happen in your kingdom, even though you are not a witness? Are you an oracle?”
“An oracle? One of those flighty court jesters?” scoffed Kevin. “I should hope not! It is as I have told you, I am a Master of Enlightenment.”
“Hmmm,” Aaron hmmm-ed, still not understanding. How could Galwynn know things not seen or experienced? Aaron felt he was getting nowhere, and thought he might do better if he tried a different tack. “All right then,” he said, “how does one become a Master of Enlightenment?”
“As in any other craft,” replied Kevin, “by first becoming an Apprentice of Enlightenment.”
Kevin could see from Nimbus’s expression that that was not the answer the young lieutenant expected, and he regretted his curt reply as soon as he finished speaking. He still didn’t feel entirely welcome in Sky, but he could see that Aaron was sincerely trying to understand the differences between them. The problem was that Kevin’s profession was too foreign to the ways of Sky to be explained easily. Very well, thought Galwynn, as he set down his mug and made himself comfortable. “I think I can best explain,” Galwynn said, “if you would permit me to tell you…a story.”