CHAPTER 6

In Which the Pregnant Question Is Asked

Though she felt obliged to protest at being carried in a chair like the Empress of China, Xian-Li actually enjoyed the attention being lavished on her by the bearers and their overseer. After weeks aboard a fetid ship, lurching about on uncertain seas, the slow swaying of the chair was a pleasant change. Arthur had explained that the ruler of this land on the Italian peninsula had once been a good friend to him in younger days. “But that was many years ago,” he said. “Things can change. Just to be safe, I will go ashore and assess the situation. If all is well, I will return for you.”

Thus the arrival of the chair, though unexpected, was a sign that the situation at court was as good or better than Arthur’s hope. She lay back on feather-stuffed pillows, surveying a land whose gentle hills above a silver sweep of sea made her feel as if she were coming home. As the bearers made the climb up from the harbour and into the town, she felt a sense of peace and calm overtaking her: a sensation of warmth and relaxation she had not known for many weeks now. After the initial jump, Arthur had insisted that further ley travel was simply too dangerous in her delicate condition; Xian-Li had her doubts. Another leap or two seemed far preferable to the voyage she had begun to think would never end.

By the time the bearers and their officious little overseer reached the long, sloping path leading to the royal lodge on the hill, she was already firmly under the spell of Etruria. Meeting the king, whose easy charm and welcoming manner so delighted her, she completely forgave the hardships she had endured getting there.

“Xian-Li, my love,” said Arthur, upon presenting her to the king, “I would have you greet Turms. He is lord and king of Velathri, and a very old and dear friend of mine.”

“I am your servant, my lord,” replied Xian-Li, beginning a curtsey. The movement, made awkward by her advanced pregnancy, unbalanced her, and she swayed dangerously.

The king reached out, took her elbow in a firm grasp, steadied her, and helped her to her feet. “We will not suffer any more ceremony in this house,” he told her.

“You are most kind,” she said when Arthur had translated the king’s words.

Turms, still holding her arm, led her to his place on the red couch. “I think you will be more comfortable here,” he said, helping her to sit. “I commend you on your choice of bride, my friend,” he told Arthur. “She is exceedingly beautiful. You are a lucky man.”

At Xian-Li’s questioning glance, Arthur said, “He says you are very beautiful and that I am a fortunate fellow.”

“Tell the king that I fear for his eyesight. I am a hideous bloated whale.”

Turms laughed when he heard this. “May all whales be so ugly to behold,” he said. “Come, let us share a drink together and begin a season of gladness in one another’s company.” The king called for wine to be brought at once. “And, Pacha, bring the silver cups.”

“Sire? Those cups are only ever used on holy days,” the servant pointed out in a terse whisper.

“Indeed!” cried the king. “So you are right to remind me. What occasion, I ask you, can be more holy than this welcoming of friends new and long absent? In honour of this glad day, we shall drink the best wine and sup on the finest festal dishes. I, Turms the Immortal, declare this a day of celebration in this house.”

“It shall be done, O Great King.” Pacha bowed and scurried away.

Turms winked at Xian-Li. “He is a most capable housekeeper, but he does forget his place and must be reminded more often than is seemly.” He laughed. “Another king would have had his head on a stake long ago. But I like him.”

As the wine was served, they talked of Xian-Li’s homeland. Turms listened with great interest, having heard that traders had begun calling on Chinese ports. But he had never known anyone who had been there, much less seen a native of that far-off realm. He wanted to know how the rulers of her country comported themselves, how they governed, what they wore and ate, and how they directed their affairs. He listened closely as Arthur translated, nodding now and then, storing away the knowledge he obtained.

When Arthur announced that he would like to walk around the grounds of the lodge and see some of the countryside, they moved their discussion out into the groves and vineyards of the royal estate. Gradually their talk came around to the reason for their visit.

“Arturos has told me that this journey has been provoked by a matter of some importance.”

“What else has my husband said?” wondered Xian-Li, with a glance of mild disapproval at Arthur as he delivered her words to the king.

“Only that what should have been a time of joy and anticipation for you has been troubled in some way. He said that he has come to seek my counsel.” Turms stopped walking, turned to her, and smiled. “It is my hope that I may repay that confidence.”

Xian-Li looked to Arthur when he explained what Turms had said. “Go on,” Arthur urged her. “Tell him.”

“It is as my husband has said,” began Xian-Li, licking her lips. “I have had some difficulty. Twice I have narrowly averted miscarrying the baby. But then it seemed that all was well and everything was proceeding as it should. I have felt strong, and my health has been very good.”

“And now?” wondered Turms at Arthur’s translation.

“It has been a month since I felt the baby move,” Xian-Li replied, her voice quivering slightly as she spoke. “I fear the child may be. .. in difficulty.”

“Ah,” sighed Turms, as Arthur finished relating what his wife had said. “I understand. You want me to tell you if this is true. You wish to know if the infant will be born alive”-his voice softened-“or dead.”

“I would not have presumed on our friendship for anything less,” Arthur told him. “But I could think of none better to advise us on the correct course.”

Turms turned and began walking down the row of neatly tended vines. He stopped at one vine and lifted a heavy bunch of blue-black fruit in his hand and, with his finger, rubbed away some of the waxy white coating on the nearest grapes.

“I am sorry if we have-” began Xian-Li.

Arthur touched her shoulder and shook his head to silence her.

In a moment, Turms turned and walked back to where the worried couple stood. “Of course, I will advise you. I only wished to see if this request lay within the realm of foreseeable knowledge. I have been asked many things in my time as king, but never this.”

“And it is something you can foresee?”

“So I believe,” Turms replied. “In any case, the answer is within my power to seek.”

They resumed their stroll among the vines, taking in the warmth and beauty of the day. Xian-Li soon became tired, and they returned to the lodge where rooms had been made up for the use of the king’s guests. Then, when they had been settled to his satisfaction, Turms put on his robe of state and went down to the temple at the base of the sacred hill to speak to some of the priests about organising the necessary items for the divination.

The chief priest, a venerable old man with a slight hump in his back, shuffled into the audience room just as the king was taking his leave. “May peace abound in your company, my lord and king,” said Sethre. “I only just learned you were here, or I would have come sooner.”

“Greetings, Sethre. I did not wish to intrude on your meditations,” replied Turms. “I came only to prepare for a divination this evening. All is in order, there was no need to disturb you.”

“Your presence is never a disturbance, O King,” replied the aged priest with polished deference. “I have good news for you. Your tomb is almost finished.”

“That is good news,” said Turms, nodding with approval. The building of a tomb was the priest king’s first, highest, and most sacred duty. His own plans, modest in comparison to some few of his predecessors, had nevertheless been fraught with complications of many kinds. The delays resulting from these difficulties had pushed the completion further and further into his reign.

“The artists assure me the tomb will be ready before the equinox,” said the old priest. “The inauguration can take place in the spring.”

“Well done, Sethre. Your experience and service have been invaluable.” It was true, the old man had guided the construction with an unflagging determination. What Turms did not say was that it was an error on Sethre’s part that had resulted in the first setback; the site chosen along the Sacred Way had proven wholly unsuitable owing to an unseen fault in the tufa stone-a fault that should have been detected in the divination ceremony long before construction ever began.

“I knew you would be pleased.” He gave a bow, then turned to go, hesitated, and asked, “The rite you are planning tonight, my king. Would you like me to assist?”

“There is no need,” replied Turms. “It involves the birth of a child.”

“A simple matter, then. I have a dove that will serve.”

“Not as simple as we could wish,” said the king, who went on to describe the fear that the child might be dead inside the mother. “Have you ever encountered such a request?”

“Only once, my king. It was many years ago.” He put a finger to his pursed lips. “I used a ram, then, as I recall. I don’t think I would use a ram now.”

“No?”

“A lamb would be better,” he said. “Or even a kid. With an older animal you risk too many complicating factors. It could cloud the issue unnecessarily. You want a young beast, and a healthy one.”

“Wise counsel, Sethre. I yield to your judgement,” said Turms. “Yes, as I think about it now, I would like you to assist me this evening. See that an unblemished lamb or kid is prepared.”

“As you will, my king.”

Satisfied that all was in order for the ceremony, Turms returned to the lodge and, after informing Pacha that no one was to disturb him, he helped himself to a plum from a bowl on the table outside his chamber. He removed his robe, hung it on the stand beside the door, then lay down on his bed and closed his eyes. But he did not sleep.

Instead, he turned the events of the day over in his mind and was instantly overcome with a sense of the rightness of all things. Everything that happened in life happened for a reason. His long acquaintance with Arturos, for example: the happy years they had spent together in one another’s company and, later, his own troubled ascendancy to the kingship and the years of intense study and preparation that followed-perhaps it had all been leading to this day, a day when that friendship could be called upon in a time of need. Turms was impressed once again, as he often was, how even the most seemingly insignificant and trivial actions and associations could, in the fullness of time, command great import.

Despise not the day of small things… Was that how it went? It was a saying he had learned in Alexandria from a bearded eastern sage-a wise man of the cult of Yahweh-the god, it was claimed, who reigned above all others, who ordained and sustained all things for his creation, and who was worshipped by Hebrews to the exclusion of all others.

Turms the Immortal thought about this, and his heart soared anew on the knowledge that in the eyes of the wise there were no small things.

In a little while, when the sun had begun descending into a sea like molten bronze, he rose, stripped, and made his ablutions from the bronze bowl, performing each action three times. Then, dressed in his crimson robe and seer’s hat, he departed, leaving orders for Pacha to bring Arturos and his wife at the appropriate time for the ceremony.

The king walked slowly down to the temple with deliberate, measured steps, his mind already searching the myriad pathways of the future for the sake of his friend.

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