"Let us go forth a while, and get better air in our lungs. Let us leave our closed rooms...
The game of ball is glorious."

--Walt Whitman

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Pelean's Jewel, Part I

for Conan, Jakob, Corbin, Shaun, Kallan and Dashiell

The faerie queen's amethyst castle stood in the curve of a stream which was clear and sweet and which burbled over the smooth and luminous rocks of its bed in the most charming manner. This stream was home to all sorts of marvelous fish and water flowers and dragonflies and the occasional enchanted frog. It flowed from deep underneath the great grey snow-capped mountain behind the palace, so its waters were deliciously cool in summer and delightfully warm in winter.

(Yes, there is winter in Faerie, but the snow is not white. It is very faintly green, like the ghost of a new spring leaf, and it is always just heavy enough to make perfect snowballs.)

The queen's name was Lilias, but no one called her by it. They addressed her as "Your Majesty", and referred to her as "Her Majesty" or simply "the Queen". She was very young, hardly more than a child, and was only just beginning to realize that it is a difficult thing to have a perfectly good name and never hear it used. Should we use it to tell this story, do you think? It is a very pretty name. I think we should.

Queen Lilias had hair as black as midnight and eyes as green and bright as emeralds. She was still growing and could at times be awkward, yet she had an inborn grace that would serve her well when she was older. When she laughed (which did not happen as often as it ought) it sounded like little crystal bells rolling against each other.

Her kingdom was neither large nor small. Its greatest claim to fame was a sort of general prosperity which ensured that even the lowliest peasant had plenty of food and good sturdy clothes and regular holidays. The land was at peace and the people content. Her subjects were pleased with her, though to say they loved her would not be strictly true. They did not know her; queens and subjects do not mix in the normal course of things.

She was rarely alone, even for a moment. She had dukes and duchesses, earls and countesses, barons and ladies competing for her attention and her favor. She had brave knights who must be allowed to look upon her from time to time, that they might know for whom they could be asked to risk their lives. She had wise and learned advisors who filled her head with conflicting advice, each according to his own particular interests and beliefs.

If that were not enough, the palace was filled with servants, privileged members of the common races of faerie who were fortunate enough to live and work so close to the nobles. Most of those servants considered it part of their duty to protect their monarch from any unpleasantness, be it a smudged spoon or a persistent petitioner. An ordinary person had a better chance of dancing on the moon than of speaking with the queen.

One of the palace servants was a boy named Tallow. He was a kitchen-boy; he scrubbed pots and peeled potatoes and generally made himself useful to the small army of palace cooks. If he worked hard and paid attention, he could look forward to being a cook himself in ten or twenty years.

Tallow was seven years old, sturdy and restless, with walnut-colored hair that would stand on end no matter how carefully he brushed it. He was a shifter, a faerie who could turn into any animal he pleased. Some very gifted shifters could even turn into plants or insects, but he had not gotten the hang of that at all.

He wanted, rather desperately, to be a knight when he grew up. The problem was, knights were always nobles, and shifters are not nobles. He spent many an hour up to his elbows in suds, scouring pans and trying to think of a way around that particular rule, but so far he hadn't hit upon a solution. If he could not be a knight he definitely, most assuredly, wanted to be something more interesting than a kitchen-boy or a cook.

But let us leave Tallow there for a moment, in the great sprawling kitchens with his pots and potatoes, and return to Queen Lilias.

On the day she was born, not so very many years before our tale begins, the sun shone brightly over the kingdom, which by the way is called Sanmeara. When the sun shines that brightly in Faerie, the sky is the bluest blue that could ever be, and when Lilias was born a wizard used his magic to trap a bit of that astonishing blue inside a smooth round jewel the size of a plump cherry. He gave the jewel to the queen, Lilias's mother, and a few years later when the king and queen died, the jewel and the crown both came to Lilias.

Oh, did you think there was no sickness or death in Faerie? I am sorry to say that there is. It is not quite so extraordinary a place as to have escaped those troubles.

By the time Lilias received it, the jewel had been set into a necklace. The young queen wore it often, for it reminded her of her mother and of course it was very beautiful in its own right. One day—and this is where our story truly begins—she was taking a stroll outside the palace with several of her advisors. While they argued among themselves over some fine point of inter-kingdom relations which Lilias did not find at all interesting, she thought her own thoughts and, as she often did, stroked the jewel hanging on its delicate chain about her neck.

They were crossing a bridge over the stream when the jewel suddenly moved under her finger. Fearing it was coming out of its setting, she stopped there at the crest of the bridge and held it up to see if it really was loose. She nudged it ever so lightly with a fingertip.

That last careful touch, alas, is what knocked it free. It tumbled out of its setting, bounced once upon the railing, and dropped into the water with a tiny splash.

"Oh!" Queen Lilias cried when this happened. A second later she said it again as a sleek, silvery shape darted out from underneath the bridge, scooped the jewel up in its mouth, lifted its barbed and gleaming tail out of the water and wiggled it in a manner that looked very much like a cheerful wave. Having done so it swam away, quick as you please.

"What was that?" she exclaimed.

"It was the water dragon, Your Majesty," one of the advisors said. "It has lived in the stream as long as anyone can remember."

"That water dragon has my jewel! We must get it back!"

"It shall be done, Your Majesty," another advisor said, shoving the first aside.

The first advisor shoved back. "Do not give it another thought, my queen. You shall have your jewel again before you know it."

Soon after, the knights in their gold and silver armor mounted their horses and thundered through the palace courtyard in pursuit of the dragon. The queen stood on a balcony and watched them go until all she could see was a little cloud of dust following the stream northward as it disappeared into the hills at the foot of the mountain.

© 2007 by the author. All rights reserved.

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