An Impeccable Distraction
While most readers are familiar with the practice of monarchs marrying their children into royal families of competing kingdoms to form lasting bonds, few are aware of earlier leaders who did much the same with animal tribes
Available with 12 other tales in the collection Legends 13 available at Amazon.com. Bryan Lindenberger’s “An Impeccable Distraction” first appeared in New Writings in the Fantastic, © 2007, edited by John Grant.
I am a Word of Science;
I am the Spear-point that gives Battle;
Who is it that Enlightens the Assembly upon the Mountain, if not I?
Who tells the ages of the Moon, if not I?
—From The Song of Amairgen*
I do not know if the diviner was truly powerful or merely clever. And I do not know if his fate was arranged by the gods or by a darkness of his heart. A little of each, perhaps. I know only for certain that today, he is our master.
His name is Set.
Set requested that Prince Geonn join him at the river for the annual spring ritual. The request was unusual, but not a surprise. An emissary of both the worldly and the divine was required to pay respects to the Crocodiles. King Mikab had grown old and sick. His daughter recently came of age; she felt the bite of the snake and was shut away in her room. Mikab’s two oldest sons had died in the winter. Not even Set’s medicine could save them, and that left only young Prince Geonn. He gladly agreed to go.
I did not witness the diviner and the prince when they departed. Affairs at the castle pressed me. I have heard that Set left with only the robe upon his back, the sandals around his feet, and a silver blade in his hand. Geonn wore the crown of his father. The journey to the river required two long hours by foot. Men rarely risked their horses along the way. The swamps were filled with sinkholes and snakes, and the Crocodiles themselves tended to spook the beasts. How could a mere animal understand? The Crocodiles were our fathers. Their tribe was strong. The Crocodile king and his diviner required an annual appeasement to renew the truce between our kingdoms. Such is the way it has always been. That is why the crops grow. That is why the sun feels warm.
Set offered blessed silver.
Geonn gave minted gold.
The town of Ynsia awaited their return. The day drew late, and some began to worry. Set appeared at last from the swamps.
His robes were covered in blood, and he was alone.
I may be young–only a few years older than Geonn when he died–but my duties have taught me much of Ynsia’s history and tradition. I know that the dry hillside upon which our castle stands was not erected by the gods as some claim. It was constructed by men in the old motte and bailey tradition. The castle itself is mostly wood, not stone and mortar as northern fortresses are. We of Ynsia are a traditional people. Rivers and swamps protect us, and we are largely isolated apart from light trade in grain and paper. Our village stands on a hill opposing the castle. A crescent wall encloses it on one side, brown streams and rice patties on the other. I’d gone there as a representative of the king to discuss a small financial matter with one of our merchants. We spoke on the deck of his house on stilts. The sun was low, and mosquitoes grew fat on our blood. I noticed a lone figure to the east and knew it was Set. I called the meeting short and raced after the diviner. I did not catch up to him until he had nearly reached the castle gate. Even then, he would not speak to me. I was left to follow him and wonder why he was alone…why his white robes were splashed in blood.
“A tragedy, My Lord!” Set gasped. He dispensed with the usual formalities and clutched at King Mikab’s frail hand. I determined the horror of his message, but to hear the words brought me to my knees. “Geonn is no more,” the diviner said. “He has died. A Crocodile warrior has taken him!”
“My son…?” King Mikab said. His voice was sickness-weak. His throne, so grand to behold, had been replaced by a sickbed. King Mikab could hardly turn his head to look the diviner in his eyes. “Geonn is gone from me? Geonn, my only son and heir…gone?”
“I pray to tell you otherwise,” Set replied. “We braved the swamps and attended the river. We waited long before a Crocodile arrived. Your son offered gold, and I offered blessed silver. But the Crocodile was no mere emissary. He was a warrior! He took your son by surprise. I tried to save him. I pleaded and I prayed. I fought to remove your son from the fiend’s jowls, but all was in vain.”
King Mikab trusted Set with all his heart. It did not occur to me that Set may have killed the prince, and I know it did not occur to the king. Set was entrusted with duties more important than Geonn’s earthly existence. He spoke to the gods. He advised on matters of trade, and he presumed over every public prayer and ritual. Ynsia prospered thanks to Set, and the souls of the dead never plagued us. The Crocodiles might sometimes attack a wanderer, but such attacks were the doings of rogues and thieves. Not in years had an agent of their crown killed a man, and never a man so important as Prince Geonn.
King Mikab was uncertain. His brown eyes showed a glimpse of their former clarity, and he questioned whether the Crocodile had truly been a warrior. “Perhaps he was an imposter,” the king said. Set acknowledged the possibility.
The conversation turned to Sera. Someone had to tell her of her brother’s demise. The king was too ill, and no wizard could risk acquaintance with a woman in her condition. I immediately stepped forward.
“Begging your pardon, My Lord,” I said, “May I consider it my duty to inform her?” I offered some shallow reasoning as to why I was best suited to the grim task. The king granted me permission. I ascended the long, bleak stairs up the tallest tower. In truth, I had glee in my heart. I missed Sera’s long red hair and joyful laughter. I pined for her beauty and conversation. It was said that a woman in her condition could dull razors, dim mirrors, and even kill a man by her very shadow. But these were outdated ideas. I knew many girls in the village who bled for the first time, and their shadows passed me without incident. The king followed very archaic traditions. Sera was to be locked in the highest room of the tower for a year. I was happy to cut my wait short, if only by a week.
I knocked at her door. A small hatch slid open near the bottom. This was the means by which the girl received her daily food and water. Prisons have such hatches, and I said, “It’s Gohan, my love. Let me in!”
The door flew open. We embraced before I gave her the sad news. Sera fell upon her bed and cried. She wailed and she kicked. I knew it was an act. I felt not the least uncomfortable while I waited. I could have watched her body heave all night. Twilight basked her skin from a window. No one had entered this room in many months, and so the scent was all hers: foreign oils and musk, dampness from her arms and feet. It may come as a surprise that I am but a lowly page. But it’s no mystery why the king trusted me with business affairs and even his daughter. The long-dead queen had found me wrapped in cloth outside the castle gates. She had a kind heart and so adopted me. I was raised inside the castle, and I know its routine better than any man. I know its secrets, too. I grew up thinking that I was a prince. I was fourth in line to the throne, yes, but a prince nonetheless. I assumed to marry Sera, to become a baron with my own land. Then the queen died, and King Mikab dashed such hopes. I never fully forgave the man. I tried not to think about it.
“Can you stay?” Sera requested, wiping away the last of her tears.
I saw that her bed was by the window. I told her she could catch a draft and die.
“But I can see the stars from here,” she replied, and she put her head back upon her pillow as though to demonstrate. “So…will you comfort me for my loss?”
The king was most likely asleep by now. His illness kept him weak despite the elixirs Set prepared for him. I saw little risk in staying, and so I stayed. Sera was right: with my head upon her pillow, I could truly see the heavens.
Diviner Set assembled a lynch party the next day. He surprised me by asking me to join him. I suppose I played some role in his plan even then. I was quite eager to attend. I knew Ynsia’s oral laws, and I could read well enough to glean information from scrolls that made their way from the north to our castle library. But I’d never seen law in practice. We set out from Ynsia into the darkest swamps. Insects as large as my fist crawled over rotting logs, and moss hung like tapestries from low branches. I was actually the first to spot a crocodile though I’d never seen one before. I pointed him out to Set. The diviner congratulated me.
“You have the eye of a hunter-scholar,” he told me, and he patted my back like a proud father. “But alas, Gohan, he is not the one.”
A shame, I thought. Glad as I was to go along, I did not care for traipsing through the mud and mire. My breeches were a mess, my well-kept shoes nearly ruined. But I kept my chin up, proud even as I swatted gnats and mosquitoes. We reached the river at last, and I must say, the beauty of the place made our journey worthwhile.
The ground was actually drier here thanks to the rocky shore. Trees grew tall from the river, their roots arching over the surface. Birds I’d never seen before skimmed the water for food, and their unique call was like a trumpet fanfare. If not for the other men to remind me, I might have forgotten the danger of our mission. The Crocodiles were indeed deadly. But only one of them faced Human Justice.
Set mounted a white border. Shielding his eyes, he scanned the river. He took special note of a place where no birds dared swoop. He pointed with his staff. “Over there,” he said. “That is the one. Our villain.”
All I saw was a log, but the other hunters reacted immediately. They dropped the canoe they carried and loaded it with ropes, knives, and spears. I prepared to join them, but Set held me back.
“No, young scholar,” he told me. “I need you alive. As a witness.”
“Yes,” I said. “Of course.” Call it bravery or dimness of thought, but I’d forgotten that I was no hunter. The only meat I stabbed was on my plate. I was relieved to stay, though I was not yet convinced that Set had seen anything more than a floating log. I contented myself to wait with the wizard at the shore. He offered me some nuts to eat. I crunched on them while the others rowed. It soon became blatantly apparent that the object in question was indeed a Crocodile.
“Are you sure he’s the right one?” I asked.
“I shall never forget his face,” Set replied.
We watched the Crocodile thrash and the men attempt to subdue him. It all seemed so far away and so quiet. The boat capsized, and it was like watching the first snowfall–dramatic and strange, yet somehow peaceful. One of the men was drawn under. Some of his companions dove after him. Others righted the canoe. Most of them were shouting. I saw their pink mouths open and close, but the birds drowned out their voices. I cracked open another nut.
“I thought Ynsia’s hunters were the finest in the world,” I said.
“Indeed,” Set told me.
“So how is it that our men perform so poorly? There is but one Crocodile and ten of them. At least, there was ten of them. Shouldn’t they have won by now?”
“This is no normal hunt. The Crocodile must be taken alive so that we may perform the trial.”
I saw blood rise to the surface. By the time the Crocodile’s jaws were clamped and his feet bound over him, one man was dead and another badly hurt. The fight had moved to the opposing shore. The victors loaded the accused into their canoe, and I was amazed how everyone could fit.
The trial was standard from what I’d learned. Diviner Set served as the principle adjudicator and stated the charges. He was also the only witness to Prince Geonn’s demise. One of the hunters, covered in filth and blood, defended the Crocodile, but it was a hopeless cause. In the end, Set decided that the Crocodile was guilty of High Murder, a crime punishable by death. The hunters put their spears to him on the spot.
We prayed before burying the old warrior, and Set led a solemn eulogy. He later stood at the river’s edge and bellowed “You see, Crocodile King! We treat your people fairly! Let us end this bloodshed and return to peace!”
I joined a chorus of shouts in agreement.
None of us wanted war.
There exists a cult in Ynsia. Its followers state that Man is not descended from Crocodile, but from the gods themselves. I admit, I am not a fervent admirer of the old traditions. But what good can come of such blaspheme? Does it really matter whether the Crocodiles are our fathers or merely our brothers? Is the difference so great as to risk the wrath of the gods? As Set himself pointed out, sinister beliefs only strained his relationship with the gods. The sun had to rise. The crops still needed to grow. Why should Set waste so much time apologizing for the wickedness of fellow men?
I suppose it has always been that way.
Set addressed the king and informed him of the trial by the river.
“Is it over?” the king wanted to know. “Will there be peace?”
“We will soon know,” Set replied. He produced a vial and uncorked it. He bade the king to drink. “Someone very powerful must be unhappy. That is why you suffer.”
Set removed the empty vial from the king’s lips. There was something arcane in the way he avoided the king’s question. The diviner suggested that he would soon receive a sign from his counterpart among the Crocodiles. The wait, he promised, would not last long.
I should have suspected those elixirs and cures that Set fed to the king. But sometimes, we see only those things we desire to see. Deep down, I hated King Mikab. I had every reason to want to see him dead. His queen had taken me as a son. I was a prince, taught to read and to ride, educated in fine food and drink. No matter my training, Mikab always saw me as impure. Black-Blood he sometimes called me, as though his blood were any redder than mine. Fate can be cruel. As each of his sons dropped off, I found myself a step closer to my true calling. Sera was his only remaining blood relative. An heiress, and a beautiful one at that. Whomever arrived to court her would one day become King of Ynsia. I expected that no princes or great generals from the north would arrive. She would receive some duke at best, but mostly local vassals and merchants. Let us be honest–as kingdoms go, swamps and a few rice patties aren’t in high demand. I took this town, this slipshod kingdom, for what it was worth. I was proud of it. I was it’s true heir. That was my right. As long as King Mikab drew breath, I knew he would not allow Sera to marry me. The idea of becoming the lowly page to some stranger who shared her bed made me ill.
I tried not to think about it.
And I ignored the fact that Mikab’s condition worsened with every dose of Diviner Set’s secret elixirs.
Princess Sera’s exile to the tower room came to an end.
That very same night, the town cried out for the diviner’s blood.
It was Set’s duty, in fact, to retrieve Sera from her chamber. I watched him mount the stairs from the Great Hall. He had certain rituals to recite to make sure Sera was prepared to return. Still, his visit took longer than I expected. I busied myself sweeping what was swept, lighting candles I’d blown out on purpose, and turning chairs. Princess Sera descended at last upon Set’s arm. It was as though the sun herself had returned.
Sera did not rush to embrace me. It was a foolish expectation. Her father was ill, and so she raced to his side. She kissed his cheek, held his hand, and whispered kind thoughts in his ear. I could hardly blame her. She’d lost two brothers and a mother, so it was only natural that she feel sympathy for him. I enjoyed seeing her again. She donned a new kirtle, yellow and bright, and I could smell her scented oils from halfway across the hall. I had experienced her flesh, but I desired her no less for it. After all, what but the memory of spring causes Man to brood through the winter.
King Mikab let out a scream.
Protocol was forgotten. The steward and several guards ran to the dais. Almost as soon as they had reached the king, they leaped back again. They were afraid. Mikab’s torso arched, and his limbs shook madly. His face contorted until it became unrecognizable. Sera screamed and hid her eyes. One of the guards cried out that Mikab had become possessed, and he fled in terror. Only two men remained calm: the diviner and the steward.
The diviner recited an incantation.
The steward quietly snuck away.
The king’s spell lasted ten minutes or more. It felt like an eternity before he collapsed into sleep. Set produced some tablets, and these he pushed down the king’s throat and followed them with water.
“It is as I feared,” he said. His voice was almost too soft to hear, but he leaned to the king’s ear and added: “The Crocodile have declared war.”
Set remained at King Mikab’s side. He stroked his hand. Sera eventually approached me, and perhaps I was too elated to notice the doubt in her eyes. Joy got the better of me. Before she could speak, I asked her to marry me. I should have known better. This was not the time or place. I was overjoyed by her sight and her smell, and in retrospect, it would have made no difference to wait. She stepped backward as I stepped forward. Her eyes avoided mine, and she replied firmly: “I will not.”
I coaxed her to sit at an empty bench. I asked her, “Why?”
Her reply was forthright. “You are merely a page.”
“Diviner Set has advised me against it.”
Those in the forbidden cult claim that it foolish to keep a royal diviner. They say that he is merely a trickster…a liar, a clever cheat. But the words of outcasts did not change Set’s esteemed position. He was still the most valued counselor to the king. And I, as Sera said so bluntly, was merely a page. Set had no reason to fear me. He had no cause to hide the truth. I went to him full of fury. I expected to confront him with the truth and call upon Sera as my witness. I expected him to argue. But he was too wise. What reason had he to lie?
“Yes,” he said. “I advised her against the marriage.”
All I could do was stand there. If Sera’s words were a knife in my back, Set’s delivered a blow to the gut. His simplicity left nothing more to say. Sera, meanwhile, glared at me as she passed.
And from that point, everything changed.
Diviner Set put his hand on my shoulder. He waited until Sera was gone. He smiled at me the way Mikab never could. And then–quite strangely–he laughed.
“Twelve months she has spent in her room,” he said. “Twelve months she has dreamed of joining you on the outside. Now, where does she retreat, young warrior-scholar?”
“To her room?” I said.
“To her room.” He laughed again, gently. “She returns to the only thing she knows. Watch carefully tonight, Gohan. With a firm heart an and open mind, your lot in life may soon change.”
“For the better, I hope.”
“I make no promises,” Set said. His eyes moved, and I followed them. I nearly fell over to see a crowd assembled at the other end of the hall. They must have gathered through the evening outside the castle gate. Our steward, the dim little fool, had let them in. There must have been fifty of them, young and old, privileged and meek. Every one of their faces seemed carved in stone. The steward stepped forward. He was so brave with the crowd behind him.
“And how is our king’s condition, Set?” he barked.
This looked bad.
Few besides the king dared address the diviner in such a manner. I expected one of the guards to grab the steward and thrash him, but the beating never came. Some guards had joined the crowd. They came for Set. It was their intention to kill him. Maybe the only thing that held them back was protocol, so ingrained as it was. Set and I waited with the king. No one dared approach our master in anger. The dais was our sanctuary, but the mob would not wait forever.
“The Good King Geonn rests now,” Diviner Set replied. Somehow, he remained calm. His posture was dignified, and I questioned the wisdom of those who tempted him. To think–just moments ago I had sought to pick a fight with the man. Now, I sat in awe of him. Something deep inside told me to choose an allegiance. I must stand by it, no matter the consequences. I chose Set. I would die at his side if I had to.
Those who stood behind the steward grew in number. They came from town and from the barracks. The steward accused Set of having lost his powers. Worse still, he claimed Set had come under control of evil spirits.
“He causes sickness in our king!” the steward cried. “Set takes him the way of his sons!”
Castle guards cheered in agreement. Others joined the call. Farmers complained about the weather, and hunters griped over a scarcity of game. Flints neglected to spark. Torches failed to cast light. Shutters rattled on their hinges, and a horse had refused to eat. Just as every good in the kingdom once brought praise to the diviner, so now every ill was laid at his feet. The mob increased in fervor, and with fervor came blind bravery. I think they would have stormed the dais that night. They may have killed us all, even the king, in their pursuit to avert fear through bloodlust. Only two events could stop them. Both happened at nearly the same moment.
I don’t know whether Set is truly powerful or merely clever.
I can’t say whether chance or a darkness of his heart arranged our fate.
I do know that the king sat up at that moment. I know his eyes were clear, his face ruddy, and his voice stronger than it had been in months. The hall turned deathly quiet, and he shouted: “The Crocodile have declared war!”
And then, the second event occurred.
As soon as the words parted from the king’s lips, thunder crashed from above.
The mob had tears in their eyes. I laughed to see them push and shove their way back out the door. I hardly even noticed that Set had risen to his feet or that Mikab had collapsed in his bed. The terror in the eyes of the mob was too comical, too worthy of remembrance. I carry it with me still. I have learned much since King Set has chosen me as Diviner of Ynsia, Chief Counsel to the Crown. But for all the wisdom he has imparted upon me, I learned more that night than any other.
Set wasted no time. He arranged a meeting with Ynsia’s wealthiest landowners and merchants. He explained that the Crocodile King had planned war for months. The diviner of their kingdom used his magic to infiltrate Ynsia. He caused the deaths of King Mikab’s sons. The castle steward himself had fallen under the enemy diviner’s spell. Only the cleansing fire could save him now, and people of Ynsia agreed. Meanwhile, Set acknowledged that the evils that beset the town were of an unnatural order. Crocodile magic was strong. Set retreated to the castle for a week and showed his face to no one. The battle was a spiritual one now. Alongside Sera, I attended to all civic matters while Set called the gods to his bidding. Men and women gathered with their children late at night to see Set stand atop the highest tower, the moonlight at his back as he waved his staff and wrestled the Crocodile magic. They waited hopefully. They praised every little sign:
A sunny day.
A rainy one.
A crow who swooped high.
One who swooped down low.
They tossed hay in the air to see where it might land, cut heads from snakes, listened intently to infant cries, and found the visages of various gods in their morning gruel. They did everything they could to aid the cause, and thus, were impeccably distracted. When the week of total war had ended, Diviner Set descended from his perch. He came to town, and the people–all but the forbidden cult–gathered in adoration and reverence. Most of all, they gathered in fear. A word is what they needed–some word to inform them that their imaginary enemy had not won the imaginary battle.
The diviner mounted the deck of the tallest home upon the tallest wooden legs. His countenance was appropriately grim, though he stood tall and straight. The light, golden at this time of day, seemed to twinkle in his eyes, and the people waited below with abated breath, stomping the rice patties they had sown, standing in cold water up to their knees.
…tell us…tell us…tell us….
Raising both his arms, the diviner Set told them: “The Crocodile King offers a truce!”
The cheers were almost deafening.
Set waited through the waves of noise. When he raised his hands again, the cheers grew only louder. My fate was sealed. The cheers could have gone on for all eternity, and I would not have cared. I lived my future during those moments. All that remained was to follow the path set out for me.
The crowd eventually hushed. Set explained that the offer was not an end to war, but, explicitly, an offer to end it. Conditions applied. Short of tearing their own limbs off, the people would have done anything.
“The Crocodile Prince requires a marriage,” Set explained as dusk settled in. “Only a virgin of high birth will seal our bond between kingdoms.”
I looked across at Sera. Even in the dwindling light, I saw that her cheeks had reddened. The princess was no virgin. But when the crowd chanted her name–when all the city called upon her to save them–her hesitation was slight.
“I accept,” she said.
The doubt in her voice was easily mistaken for modesty. People see what they choose to see. The roar of the crowd, this time, nearly brought the house down.
Things sometimes end where they began. It was only natural that Diviner Set accompany Sera to her ceremony down at the river. He brought a silver dagger with him. He returned alone awhile later, and people rejoiced that the Crocodiles had accepted Princess Sera as one of their own. Word became official: the war had ended.
King Mikab died soon afterwards. With no blood heirs left to assume the throne, Set was a natural choice as sovereign lord. There were those who opposed him: a charismatic soldier, a wealthy merchant, and even a boy whose mother claimed King Mikab had once shared her bed. But the winds were with Set, and those others were quickly silenced. Set assumed the throne in a grand ceremony few are likely to forget. The food was extravagant, and the song and dance lasted for days. When all was quiet again, and the people returned to their labors, King Set arrived at my meager chambers.
“I understand you know how to read,” he said.
“I do,” I replied.
“And the ways of the law,” he continued, “they are familiar to you? As familiar as the daily ebbs and flows of this castle?”
“Indeed,” I said. I lowered my eyes and added: “Though, I have much yet to learn.”
King Set did not smile as I expected. He had become quite serious as of late, and his age had begun to show. Still, his words were kind. “Ynsia has never known rule without a diviner. The will of the people is behind me, though there are few I can trust. I suspect you have heard rumblings from a certain cult among us?”
Set nodded, though sadly. “Then you shall assume my former position. I have much to teach you…not so much about gods, but about men. Childless as I am, I will announce you as my heir.”
“I am honored beyond words, My Lord.”
“Yes,” he said. “I suppose that you are. But promise me…promise me, Gohan, that you will nurture the changes that I cannot.”
*Source for The Song of Amairgen:
Peter Berresford Ellis, 1994
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Grand Rapids, Michigan