Tim Pratt's Journal
2803515 Curiosities served
2008-04-23 2:08 PM
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It's free fiction day again. Here's an old one, published in 2002 in Kinships, never collected or reprinted.
The Man Who Loved the Moon
The king entered the dining room and found his daughter Lara setting an extra place at the table. A salty breeze blew in through the open balcony, making the tattered drapes wave. Someone had moved the good tapestries from the throne room and hung them here, covering the dirtiest parts of the stone walls.
“What’s all this?” King Peter rumbled, rubbing his stomach absently. Lara laid out silver goblets and gold plates. She folded the linen napkins artfully into swans. Lara had no servants to set the table for her. Peter’s small kingdom by the sea could only afford to support few attendants: a pair of maids, a man-at-arms, and a very aged wizard. Peter remembered a time when servants and courtiers thronged the castle, but that seemed dim and unimportant.
Lara put down the last gleaming fork and placed her hands on her hips. She looks just like her mother used to, Peter thought with unusual clarity, before she tore into me about something.
“I’ve taken steps to solve your marital problems,” Lara said. Her voice was properly euphonious, but her drawn-down eyebrows revealed her determination. How old is she now? Peter thought. Fifteen? Sixteen?
“Your mother’s dead,” Peter said, pulling out a heavy oak chair and dropping into it. The table, unadorned wood, might have serviced any fisherman’s house. Peter remembered a long banquet table, inlaid with gold, but it had disappeared long ago. “I don’t have any marital problems.”
Lara glided to his side and poured wine into his cup, but her glare didn’t waver. “That’s what I mean. It’s time you remarried.”
“But why? You’re my heir. Why else do I need a wife?”
“You have gravy on your robes,” Lara said. “They haven’t been cleaned lately, have they?”
“Haven’t gotten around to it,” he muttered.
Lara shook her head. “A wife wouldn’t allow that sort of thing.”
“A good reason not to have one,” Peter said, sipping his wine.
Lara crouched beside him. “Then think of me, father. I have no ladies-in-waiting, and no governess. How will I find a suitable husband without a noble woman to guide me?”
“It will all work out, I imagine.” Peter frowned at the chandelier. Someone had dusted it. The familiar cobwebs were gone. He made an effort to remember his own marriage. His father had arranged it, in the days when alliances meant something. Peter had never thought of finding a husband for Lara. The duties of kingship didn’t interest him, and his subjects liked it that way, because he didn’t tax them harshly.
“Father, you have an obligation to provide for me.”
Peter sighed. Why wouldn’t she leave him be? “You’ve been talking to Laszlo, haven’t you?” Laszlo, the court magician, often rambled about Peter’s father and the kingdom’s former glory.
Lara snorted. “No. He just talks to his flowers these days. I’ve spoken to some of the wise women, and they agree you should have a wife.”
“Wise women? Which ones?”
Lara shrugged uncomfortably. “Mostly Nedra, by the shore.”
Peter laughed. “Does she still live in that cave? The one that floods at high tide, and she has to move all her things uphill?” Nedra had been ancient even during Peter’s youth. The courtiers’ children had sometimes thrown rocks at her.
“She gathers her power from the elements,” Lara said, as if by rote. She patted her piled braids. “She’s given me lots of good, practical advice.”
“She used to curse father,” Peter said, suddenly remembering. “During every new moon she’d climb the sea cliffs and curse him unto the seventh generation, you know, and wish miseries on the kingdom.” He looked at his reflection in the shallow golden plate. “Nothing ever came of it.”
Lara frowned. “I didn’t know about that. She only says good things about you. She remembers your childhood. She says you could charm birds from the trees and streams from their courses.” She sounded doubtful.
Peter didn’t remember any such charm, but that was long ago. “Glad she’s let bygones be. Perhaps I’ll send her a roast chicken.” His stomach rumbled. “Speaking of which, where’s dinner?”
“We have another guest coming,” Lara said, glancing toward the balcony. “She’ll be here shortly after nightfall.”
Peter pondered that. “What?” he said at last.
“A noble lady,” Lara said, fidgeting. “From a faraway kingdom.”
“What kind of noble lady would come here?”
“Nedra knows her,” Lara said. “They’re old friends.” She straightened a bouquet of flowers.
“That old witch? How does she know any noble—“
A crystal bell rang. The master-at-arms stood in the doorway, his pudgy body stuffed into servant’s livery, no doubt rescued from mothballs for the occasion. “Announcing the Lady Selene, your majesties.”
For a moment Peter sat, blinking blearily at the frog-faced master-at-arms. Then old court customs, drilled into him since birth, activated. He stood, dredging up a dignified posture. Lara looked a perfect princess at his side, poised and elegant. The master-at-arms bowed away, and the lady entered.
How to describe the first night a man realizes he is alive, looking at pale blossoms on a pond and feeling the cool air rush through his lungs? How to shape in flesh the moment when love is first experienced, not just imagined and read in old poems but felt burrowing through to the heartspaces? How to clothe the scent of bonfires and revelries on endless nights of youth in glory?
The Lady Selene brought all those things with her like raiment. Peter’s mind, usually ranging in half-remembered books and fancies, focused on her like a lantern-beam. For the first time in years he became fully aware of another, and that awareness woke him.
The Lady wore a white dress embellished with lace. The fabric, charmed in some way, glowed with a faint luminescence. Her hair was that surprising white that sometimes appears on fair women before they earn it with age. Her eyes were dark as the spaces between stars. Lara clasped and unclasped her hands, discomfited by the presence of true nobility.
Selene curtsied gracefully. “Your majesty.”
Peter bowed. He regretted the stains on his robe, but his father’s lessons, long forgotten, returned. With the proper bearing, such small imperfections would go unnoticed. Peter possessed that bearing now, pulled up from a well of great ancestors. “Lady,” he said in a voice as clear and undeniable as a distant wolf’s howl, “Allow me the pleasure of your company at dinner.”
The lady inclined her head graciously and smiled.
The maids brought dinner and Peter made conversation. Selene was friendly enough, in the reserved manner of the nobly born. She asked after the kingdom’s welfare, and Peter made it sound more prosperous than it was. He had let it fall into disrepair of late. Why hadn’t he been a more attentive king? Selene’s presence made him feel like a young man and a young god all at once. The prospect of marriage began to interest him. He could see advantages to having a noblewoman at court.
“From where do you hail?” he asked. “And where are your retainers?”
“From far over the mountains and beyond the sea,” Selene replied smoothly. “I brought no servants, for I understood that his majesty required few of his own, and I did not wish to offend his customs.” She paused, eating a tiny spoonful of fish stew. “I admire a man who can take care of himself.”
Peter noted her evasion thoughtfully. Was she dispossessed, from a noble but fallen family? That would explain her evasion, and her interest in the king of such a small land. Marriage would be a mutually beneficial arrangement, Peter thought. She would retain lands and royalty, and Lara would learn the ways of nobility.
After dinner they walked in the garden. Laszlo did little with his magic in those days but tend the flowers, and they bloomed gloriously regardless of the season. Selene lost some of her composure as she sniffed and exclaimed over the autumn blossoms.
Have they no flowers in her country? Peter thought. He touched her arm. “Lady,” he said, “I contemplate marriage.”
Selene bowed her head. Her white hair fell across her face like a cloud across the moon. “I confess, majesty, that your daughter invited me with that intention. I agreed to come as a favor to a... friend.” She hesitated over the last word.
“Old Nedra?” Peter asked.
“Yes. We have a long association, and she asked me in a way I could not refuse. I intended to leave in the morning.”
Hope stirred. “But?”
“I am reconsidering,” she said. “Forgive my presumption, majesty, but you are an impressive man, and I am fond of your daughter already. So pretty and bright. And I love the food, and the flowers.. it’s all very overwhelming.”
It was only fish stew, Peter thought. Did she come from far inland, where seafood was rare? “Will you be my guest for a time, and consider my offer? You would make a fine mother for my daughter, and Queen for my kingdom.”
Selene parted her lips but didn’t speak. She looked at the stars over the mountain, sparkling above the sea. Peter looked with her. No moon, but the stars gleamed bright. He thought he saw the silhouette of someone standing on the sea cliffs, but it might have been only a shadow, or a spire of rock.
“I have duties,” Selene said reluctantly, “but, yes, I will stay for a while. Thank you for your hospitality. I will give you my answer soon.”
“Take your time,” he said. “I want you settled in your mind.”
Peter did his best to influence Selene’s decision. The next day he took her riding. She seemed uncomfortable on horseback at first, and said she had not ridden often, but soon she caught the way of it. They went flower-gathering in the green hills behind the castle. Peter fed her the finest delicacies of the sea and took her among the people, hoping she would grow to love them. He roused white-bearded Laszlo and had him prepare fireworks. After dinner he stood with Selene on the parapets and watched light-flowers bloom in the moonless sky. Odd, he thought. Wasn’t last night the new moon? He might have asked Laszlo, once an accomplished astrologer, but the wizard had fallen out of practice and grown absent-minded in his old age.
“Have you considered my proposal, Selene?” he asked when the last firework faded.
“Too soon majesty,” she said, taking his hand. “You have filled my day with delights, but this is a serious decision.”
“Of course.” He didn’t want to pressure her, but her company made him feel so crystally receptive and alive that he already loathed the idea of living without her. He could not help but associate his revived interest in life with her. He recalled long months when he’d scarcely emerged from the library. What strange malaise had gripped him? No matter. That time was past.
The next day he took Lara and Selene into the hills. They picnicked by a stream and talked of books. Selene had not read much, but she knew the old pastoral ballads and love poems. The cultured court conversation (or what passed for it) delighted Lara. They returned to the castle in the evening, and the master-at-arms begged a moment of the king’s time.
“Majesty,” he said once they were alone, “Many people came seeking audience today, fishermen and farmers and their women. They seemed upset.” The master-at-arms frowned, looking more chinless and froglike than usual. Any subject had the right to request audience with the king, but none had since Peter assumed the throne.
“I will remain in the castle tomorrow,” Peter said, “and receive them in the throne room.”
He didn’t mention the upcoming audience with Selene. He didn’t want her to think his people discontented. They dined, and then toured the Hall of Portraits. Peter related the history of the kingdom, surprised at his own knowledge.
Peter sent Lara to bed. He bowed on one knee before Selene, in their now-customary place on the parapet, and took her hand. She blushed and protested, but he quieted her with a look. “Lady, I ask again. Will you marry me?”
She knelt beside him in a flurry of petticoats. “Majesty—“
“Peter,” he insisted.
She nodded. “Peter. I want to accept your proposal. It is not for lack of affection for you, or your kingdom, that I hesitate.”
She shook her head. “I have responsibilities in my own lands that I am avoiding. But I loathe those responsibilities. Do you see my trouble?”
Peter knew better than to press her for details. Selene could withdraw into cool aloofness, perfectly polite but unresponsive, if he probed too deeply.
He nodded. He could understand unwelcome responsibilities. He kissed her hand. “I will leave you to sleep then, my lady. Tomorrow Lara will entertain you. I have some responsibilities of my own.”
She wished him good night and left for her chambers. Peter looked at the sea cliffs and the cloudy sky. Don’t despair, he thought. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?
Peasants thronged the throne room, stark with its tapestries removed. The master-at-arms banged his mace as the king entered. His subjects bowed. Peter sat in the massive throne, uncomfortable in the heavy purple robes of court, and gestured for them to rise.
All the people spoke at once, an incomprehensible babble. “Appoint a spokesman,” the master-at-arms snapped. “Let him tell the king your troubles.”
A fisherman (one could tell by the smell, which Peter did not find unpleasant) came forward, crushing his hat in his hand. “Majesty,” he stammered, rubbing his bald head, “It’s the tides! They’re all wrong!”
A woman, probably his wife, shouldered her way forward and curtsied awkwardly. Determination filled her hook-scarred face. “Begging pardon, majesty, but it’s not the tides.” She aimed a glare at her husband, who muttered and twisted his hat. “A man will see an overturned boat, but a woman sees the wave that caused it. The real trouble isn’t the tides, it’s the moon.” A gabble of voices erupted at that, and the master-at-arms banged his mace, calling for quiet.
“What about the tides? And the moon?” Peter asked.
The fisher-folk exchanged surprised glances. “You don’t know, majesty?” the spokesman said. “The moon vanished three nights past! The tides went out, and never came back in! There’s an extra mile of beach, dry as you please, and we can’t put our boats in! The docks are dry!”
A farmer in dirt-stained clothes spoke up. His face contained no more expression than a shovel blade, and his voice was harsh as a bull’s snort. “I’ve got no signs to plant by, majesty. How can I plant corn to grow tall, if there’s no waxing moon to grow with it?” He paused, seeming to ponder. “I’ve never had much use for kings, begging your majesty’s pardon, but it seems to me a king should do something about this.”
The fisherman’s wife cleared her throat nervously. Peter turned his attention to her, feeling pulled in too many directions. “I’m a midwife, majesty, speaking for the women. The moon’s important to us in many ways, sire. I don’t know what will happen with it gone.”
The crowd stood silent, its worries made clear.
Peter coughed and rubbed his chin. “I’ll look into it,” he said at last.
The people breathed a single sigh of relief.
They put a lot of faith in me, Peter thought. I wish I deserved it.
“The moon, sire?” Laszlo said. He tilted his frayed, conical hat back on his head. “Missing?”
Peter glanced around the workshop. Glass jars filled with strange fluids sat on rotting shelves. Hay covered the floor, and worms had riddled several precious books. The room looked and smelled like an unswamped stable. “Yes, Laszlo. It’s been gone for three days.”
Laszlo laughed, a scattered sound not far from lunacy. “The moon isn’t like a lost sheep, sire. It doesn’t wander off.”
“Apparently it has,” Peter said, irritated. “I know moonrise is past your bedtime, old man, but stay up tonight and you’ll see.”
“I’m sure she’ll turn up,” Laszlo said, his attention already wandering. He peered into an empty cauldron.
He was so bright and lively when I was young, Peter thought, stalking through the corridors and mixing great pots of smoky potion. Now he’s addled as... well, as I used to be. Peter frowned and opened his mouth to try again.
“The moon is woman-magic anyway,” Laszlo said suddenly, scratching under his robes. “The moon and the sea belong to women. They’re like women themselves.” He cackled. “Pretty enough, but ever-shifting, and the one is distant while the other will swallow you whole. Mountains and the sun, those are man’s magic, sire. I can’t do anything about the moon.”
“But a woman could?” Peter said slowly.
“Oh? Oh, well, yes. A powerful one could influence the moon.”
Peter kicked at the hay on the floor. It couldn’t be. “Laszlo, could the moon come to earth as a woman?”
Laszlo poked at a long-dead frog lying belly-up on his work table. “She was worshipped as a goddess once. There were stories... Some women still worship, sire. They would know better than I.”
“Women like old Nedra?” Peter asked. Things were coming together in a disturbing way.
Laszlo’s hat fell off. He looked down at it, bewildered. He blinked. “Nedra. She hated your father like poison. Isn’t she dead yet?” He continued to look down. “Where did that hat come from?” he demanded.
Peter had already left.
“Nedra!” Peter shouted. “Come out!”
Peter stood on the rocky shore. The sea gleamed in the far distance.
“You come in.“ Nedra’s voice was slick as moss on a river-rock. Peter hesitated, then clambered into the cave’s mouth. He had no choice.
The cave stank of rotting fish and old smoke. He couldn’t see anything, but he sensed the presence of another.
“Do you like my nice dry cave?” Nedra asked. “It doesn’t flood anymore.”
“We need to talk about the moon,” Peter said, peering into the dark.
Nedra giggled, sounding almost girlish. “She’s gone missing, hasn’t she? The fishermen are beside themselves, but I’m nice and dry. The tides are better off stopped, I say.”
“You have to tell me,” Peter said, wetting his lips. “Is Selene the moon?” It seemed absurd, but there were many things in the world man did not understand. Peter’s father had seen a phoenix born, and once a dragon, flying in the distance. Mysteries abounded in the sea and sky.
“I didn’t steal the moon. Not Nedra. Pretty Peter did it.”
Peter sat on a rock, putting his head in his hands. True, then. Nedra had enticed the moon to earth, and Peter had fallen in love with her. “Is this part of your curse? To make me miserable?”
Nedra didn’t speak for a long time. Peter wondered if she’d transformed into a lizard and slithered away, or turned to sea foam. She finally said “My curse never worked as I wanted. I made the king’s child, pretty Peter, an idiot, but the people managed well enough without him. I wanted to bring the whole kingdom down.”
“I’m no idiot,” Peter said sharply, looking up.
“No more, no more. You were such a bright and pretty child, until I fogged you in. But that didn’t work, so I brought the lady and lifted the fog. An idiot couldn’t win the lady.”
The cave’s stink made his head hurt. “But why? Why offer me love?”
“Love her and ruin your people, Pretty Peter. Love her and the tides never return, the women go barren, the men go mad. Let her go and save your people, or keep her and save yourself. Break your heart or break your kingdom.”
“I’ll kill you,” Peter said, his voice heavy as stones falling to the sand. He’d never hurt anyone, but he could hurt her now.
“Your father never could,” she cooed. He heard a clatter of rocks. If she disappeared into the depths of her cave, he couldn’t dare to follow.
“Wait!” he cried. “Just tell me, why? Why did you curse my kingdom, my father? What did he do to you?”
“Who remembers? Who remembers?” She sounded as insensible as a parrot repeating. “Who remembers?” Her voice faded away.
Peter knew she was gone. Carefully, he made his way back to the waning light. He mounted his horse and let it walk slowly back to the castle, thinking about responsibilities.
He didn’t reach the gates until after full dark.
“Selene,” he said, standing by the wall, looking at the stars. They stood on the highest tower in the castle, but he felt no nearer the sky than before. “Tell me about the man who loved the moon.”
She didn’t look at him, and answered without hesitation. “The man who loved the moon was a poet. He praised her beauty and won her affection, but he could not reach her. One night, maddened by desire, he climbed the highest cliff in the kingdom and leapt, reaching for her. But man has no wings, and he plunged into the sea and died. Now, once a month, the moon hides her face in a black mourning veil, and every night she pulls the waves aside to look for her lost love.” She turned her head, meeting his eyes. “Is that the story you mean?”
“Close enough,” he said, trying to hold back tears. In some ways, he preferred Nedra’s fog to this. He faced no sorrow there.
“I would not have you leap from a mountain, Peter.”
“I won’t. I have responsibilities, too.”
Selene looked up, her face perfectly composed, betraying no emotion. “Once a month, during the new moon, no one could notice if I came to earth...”
“No,” Peter said. The word hurt his throat emerging. “It would be worse to see you so rarely than to never see you again. We will both have a night for mourning.”
Selene squeezed his hand. “Thank you, Peter, for these beautiful nights. I do not regret coming, but I am saddened to leave.” She kicked off her shoes and climbed to the top of the wall. Peter turned his back. Watching her ascend would be wrong, like watching her undress without permission. He heard the flutter of skirts.
After a time he turned and looked up. Selene gleamed, a sliver of white in the sky. He heard the waves crashing tumultuously to the shore and hoped they would drown Nedra in her cave, but he knew better. He would deal with the old witch later. Lifting his robes, he walked to the stairs. He wanted to tell Lara what had happened, and that she should avoid Nedra’s treacherous friendship.
The high tower had many stairs. Halfway down, Peter’s mind wandered. Why should he go see Lara? The library was much closer, and a warm chair awaited him there.
Lara never asked about Selene. She’d forgotten, too.
That night, a fog rolled in over the sea.
The king entered the dining room and found his daughter setting an extra place at the table. “It is time you remarried, father,” she said.
“Hmm?” Peter said. Bright rugs adorned the floor, moved from the Hall of Portraits. He put his hand on the back of a chair to steady himself, feeling disoriented.
“I’ve invited a noblewoman, father. Sit. She’ll be here any moment.”
Peter struggled to formulate a response. Before he managed one, the master-at-arms rang a bell, announcing company.
“The Lady Mersine,” he said, and Peter turned his head.
A strange lady stood in the doorway, her hair dark as coral. Her deeply tanned skin marked her as a foreigner, and her eyes shifted from green to blue as he watched. Her smile held secret depths. Her clinging gown, flowing down the length of her curvaceous body, shimmered blue and white.
Those eyes, Peter thought. A man could drown in them.
He rose to greet her.
That night a billion fish drowned in the air, and ships settled to sands that had not been uncovered since the world began. Nedra slept, dry and content, in her cave.
The moon sailed on, silent, over the new desert.
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