Previously on Gar…er, The Unmaking of the Worm! An envoy from the distant land of Vermis Dei has unexpectedly arrived at Column’s Keep, requesting a royal audience. The king’s hierophant advises against such a meeting, having been warned against receiving such a one in a dream, but the king’s other advisers can’t see the harm and the king’s own curiosity is piqued. What could a dark and, by all accounts, dismal land such as Vermis Dei have to offer that could possibly tempt a kingdom as well-established and renowned as Column’s Keep to ruin? The council ends without a clear answer, which as we all know, is fundamentally the same as a yes. And indeed, later that same night…
Toward the end of the meal King Kevin caught Alquint’s eye and motioned him over. “Has the Hierophant’s entourage been fed?” he whispered.
“Of course, Majesty,” Alquint remonstrated in the King’s ear.
The seneschal startled visibly. “Even as you, Majesty,” he replied stiffly, affecting dismay that his King could suspect his servant of so gross a violation of established convention.
“Good, good.” A smile just touched one corner of Kevin’s mouth. It was plain he was enjoying his faithful servant’s discomfiture. “Then you may tell our guests that they may meet with me and my counselors in the King’s Council Chamber in half an hour.”
“But, Majesty, surely…” Alquint began in alarm, but with a tut-tut and small shooing motions of his hands, the King sent his seneschal off to do his bidding, to the amusement of the others sitting at high table. This was obviously an old game the King played on his protocol-sensitive seneschal.
“Is this wise?” Bronte whispered across Corwin’s plate seated to the King’s left.
“Maybe, maybe not,” Kevin whispered back, “but I want to know what this is about.” He stood, and the gallery stood with him. Taking the Queen seated at his right by her hand, the King left by a small side door; after looking at each other, his two counselors followed.
The council chamber was a long, rectangular room with a dais at one end on which were positioned four thrones, a large one for the King and smaller ones for the Queen and his two counselors. Before a presentation area in front of the dais, a long table and benches stretched halfway to the main door. House guards positioned by the doors, along the walls and on both sides of the three broad steps to the dais saw to the royal party’s safety. At a nod from the King, Alquint announced his Eminence, Sapristi, Archbishop of the Worm, Special Envoy of his Exalted Eminence, the Hierophant of Baaloth, and his two assistants; and conducted them to the dais, where they bowed deeply.
King Kevin, affecting bored indifference but keenly interested in spite of himself and Aden’s warning, began the interview. “Inasmuch as Columns Keep has never recognized the government of Vermis Dei, was unaware of the existence even of a Hierophant ruling there and can imagine no possible purpose to establishing regular contact between our peoples, this meeting tonight must be unofficial. I could not in good faith, however, refuse to hear you as a prelude, perhaps, to more official recognition at some later date should a basis be found upon which to establish future cooperation. I would at the least know the purpose for such an unlooked-for communication, if only to ease in part the gross ignorance we at Columns Keep must labor under regarding your nation.” With a twinkle in his eye he cast a quick glance at his seneschal to note the effect his formal approach to the unanticipated delegation before him produced in this paragon of protocol and noted what could only be smug approval.
The Special Envoy bowed deeply and replied, “We can only be grateful that you have granted our humble petition, gracious King, and acknowledge our lowly and uncultured state in the presence of such magnanimous benevolence. In fact, the home where the mighty Worm of Sargon chooses to abide does not lend itself to the luxuries you enjoy here. Our port is poor. Of the nearly thousand miles of coastline our land claims, much of it is alluvial delta suitable for gathering shellfish, spreading nets and little else. Still, our God has not left us without treasures.” A gleam appeared in the Envoy’s eye as the Queen, who had up until this moment appeared somewhat bored by the whole proceeding, sat up straighter on her throne and took a sudden interest in the conversation.
Bronte shifted on his throne and leaned toward Corwin. “Now we come to it,” he whispered. The Archbishop motioned to one of his servants, who brought forth a small black lacquered box chased with gold and silver, and offered it toward the dais. King Kevin motioned to a house guard, who took the box from the servant and handed it up to the King. Releasing the catch, he opened the lid slowly to reveal a stunning jewel. Shaped like a teardrop and attached by a gold fitting to a chain of finest gold, about the size of a quail’s egg, the jewel was black as jet—so black that it seemed more than just the absence of light, more like the negation of illumination, like looking into a dimension of non-being wherein played tiny flames of color, swirling gently deep within the center of this very antithesis of radiance.
“Baaloth’s Tear,” Sapristi explained quietly. “Exquisite and infinitely rare, a precious gift from our God.”
Kevin’s gaze shifted from the contents of the box to the carefully guarded eyes of the Worm’s envoy and back to the box. A soft, “Oooo aaaah,” escaped the Queen’s lips and she reached toward the fabulous jewel in its presentation case. A sudden loathing to surrender the prize arose in King Kevin, nevertheless, he reluctantly passed the treasure to Emayla who picked up the jewel by the chain and held it before her face to regard it more closely. Bronte and Corwin glanced from the jewel hanging from Queen Emayla’s hand to each other, frowning. It was plain to them that the advantage in the meeting had swung to Sapristi. Even Alquint peered myopically around the embassy to get a better view.
Corwin cleared his throat. “A very pretty bauble, doubtless,” he said to the smiling Envoy. “A present, or a trade item, I wonder.”
“Yes,” Kevin muttered, tearing his gaze from the gem dangling from his queen’s grasp and returning to the issue at hand. “Does the Hierophant envision the establishment of some kind of trade agreement between our two nations? For what would we trade? Not for this, surely,” he said indicating the jewel his Queen was even then fixing around her neck.
“Oh, surely not, Great King,” Sapristi spoke quickly, then smiled, indicating the Queen. “It is a gift—of wonderful value, it is true—but a gift nevertheless. It is in token of Respect from Baaloth, and of Honor and Hope: respect to the greatest of the kingdoms of Humans to grace the earth in this or any age, honor to the majesty and benevolence of its reigning monarch—” Here the Special Envoy inclined his head to the King, “—and hope that your Highness might be persuaded in one small thing to come to the aid of the people of Vermis Dei.”
Here is the crux of the matter, Corwin and Bronte both thought to themselves. “Majesty,” Bronte interrupted gently, “by your leave?”
By carefully questioning Sapristi, and repeating back to Kevin in absolute and unequivocal terms, Bronte proceeded to negotiate a tentative agreement between their two nations. Vermis Dei and the people of the Worm lacked ground suitable for growing crops. Or rather, crop. Their most important crop was avoine, a grain grown in the rich volcanic soil of Baallumis, home of the God, Baaloth, from which a nourishing paste was made. Arable land there was severely limited, and the bayous and sand bars of the delta on which their people eked out a meager living would not support growing grain of any kind. His Exalted Eminence, the Hierophant, had sent out exploratory expeditions to the great plateau which arose north out of the swamps to see if avoine could be grown there, but the people of the Worm, who had never had to understand the basic principles of irrigation, could not grow this needed crop in the high deserts and savannahs they found there. He had therefore determined to approach Columns Keep, whose skill at growing crops and surplus of arable land were already the envy of the known world in the hope that his Gracious Majesty, King Kevin, would consent to a proposition favorable to both.
Despite Aden’s warning and Corwin’s misgivings, a contract was drawn up in which it was agreed that Vermis Dei would supply the seed and Columns Keep would supply the fields and the labor to grow the crop for a one year trial. The Hierophant would then purchase the crop at the same rate Columns Keep charged for their greatest cash crop, whatever that was. If the merchants of Columns Keep desired to sell avoine in other world markets at some future date, they were free to do so as long as the Hierophant had first right of purchase for his own people. Neither side could lose. And Sapristi had thoughtfully brought seed with him in hopes that the king could be persuaded to see that it was to their mutual advantage to attempt the trial that very season. As King Kevin allowed himself to be persuaded, thinking no doubt of the difficulty he would have to face getting the Queen to relinquish the exquisite jewel now hanging around her neck, the embassy retired. Gone were any thoughts of scuttling the ship in the harbor and sending her crew to the Ferryman.
The King and his counselors talked together long into the night and made plans for implementing this new enterprise.
Alquint, his mind already on the calendar of events that were to transpire on the morrow, decided to stop in to see the young princes to their beds. He had a fondness for the royal heirs to the kingdom. They reminded him of his own son, Quinten, whom he was already grooming to be seneschal after him, to serve the heir of King Kevin as his father had served the house of the Kings of Columns Keep all his days. The thought brought a broad smile to his wrinkled face.
Chapter One concludes next week, so be sure to tune in to see how the beginning ends!