The first in a series of short stories illustrating the fall of the Pyann Empire, one table at a time. We start at a feast table in Thoronit…
…is a trestle table, a thick slab of oak for the top, long enough for six nobles on one side, eight if they are friendly. The edge of the table is carved with a triple-arrow design, the sigil of this House. The trestles are sturdy pedestals, a study in functional beauty, carved with the diligent artistry of the Pyanni woodworker. Every tall triangle the same proportion, every angle symmetric with its mate, every leaf the correct number of nodes. All these details are hidden beneath a tablecloth of the whitest linen, an intricate pattern of greens and yellows zigzagging across the bottom. The table is centered on a raised dais at one end of a great hall.
The table’s cousins—longer, plainer trestle tables—line up in front of it, five in each row, benches along the wall sides. Half the tables remain in storage. There has been no need of them for years.
Rugs displaying historic scenes cover stone block walls between tall windows, shuttered against the spring rain. Light flares from a huge fire on the opposite wall. On this end of the room, a multitude of candlesticks and wall sconces push back the gloom. More candles than usual. Tonight, they splurge.
A couple sits at the main table in massive chairs, with ornately carved armrests and arches of red and black insets over their heads. The woman’s chair back is a span taller than the man’s. Smaller chairs to each side host the wizard adviser and the Entovanite high cleric, both dressed almost as finely as the aesor and aesorar, and beyond them, the couple’s children.
The benches are filled with soldiers, or rather, reasonably strong and quick men and women willing to put on the mask of soldier when required. They are jaens and minor nobles, bonsgards and smiths and farmers, united tonight by their corn-yellow vests. The House color highlights the amber in many of their eyes, and provides striking contrast to their long dark braids and faces of cinnamon, clove, and paprika.
The veterans of past military missions speak in subdued tones amongst themselves. The younger, untested soldiers are more boisterous. Enthusiastic, or pretending to be. They shout across the room, practicing their courage, seeking excuses to sing another song or call out another toast. Many in both groups sit close by their husbands and wives. The spouses’ faces reveal which ones are not soldiers themselves, which ones are not leaving with the company, which ones will be saying goodbye in the morning.
A dizzying array of dishes cover the tables—pewter and silver for the nobles, wood and pewter for the others—filled with foods of every color and smell imaginable. Pale-skinned servants move quickly to replace empty platters with filled ones, to bring more pitchers of sweet wine for the upper tables and brown ale for the lower ones. Dogs wander across the empty expanse between the last table and the kitchens, sniffing for fallen scraps, adding their barks to the clamor.
The aesorar pokes at his food, pushing a chunk of roasted meat onto his spoon with a knife. He sniffs it, bites, and grimaces, aggravated by this trend of adding countless spices and pickles into every pot. He thinks this dish should be veal, but for all he can tell it could be the oldest mutton, or worse. He drops the spoon back onto the plate, the splash of sauce betraying his annoyance.
That’s not really why he’s upset. It’s because he’s one of those spouses who has to say goodbye in the morning.
He wishes his wife wasn’t going. He could lead their troops instead. Or her general could. But it is her duchy. She has the right. And she is a better leader than he is, he knows that. She is smart and resourceful and brave. They follow her for good reason. Still.
He leans over and asks his wife, not for the first time, if she has to go.
The aesor’s eyes sparkle, with excitement and love and wine. “I would feel the same in your place, my dear. But as you say, I have the right. So I will go take the battle as well as I can, and be comforted, knowing you are here, safe at home.” She kisses his fingertips. He pulls their linked hands closer and kisses hers.
He wonders how safe home will be when the company leaves, with only a skeleton crew to protect the aeson. His wife is taking many of the healing clerics and three of their most powerful wizards, leaving only one who is strong enough to work the castle wards. But he can handle bandits. And the hill folk too, if they try another land grab. They can’t be as bad as magruks.
That’s what his wife will be facing. Fierce barbarians, skin the same color as their armor, helmets cut to show their fangs when they scream those bloodcurdling war cries. They swoop in from nowhere on the backs of great beasts—like donkeys, but larger and fast as the wind—to cut down their opponents from above. And not just magruks anymore. Now they fight with clever green monkeys and grotesque giants wielding maces as thick as logs. The man has never seen them. His wife won’t indulge him with gory details. But each time she returns, she explains the strategies they used. What worked, what didn’t, what they noticed the magruks doing. She wants to be sure he knows it all, to prepare him for when—if, he says, if—he needs to lead the troops.
In response to a toast yelled from a back table, the aesor calls out a hearty hurrah, echoed by the raucous crowd. Noticing her husband’s silence, she reaches over to squeeze his arm. “I’ve brought them back before, don’t forget. I’ll bring them back again.” Her wide smile, almost giddy, turns to concern when she sees his expression. She holds his eye for a moment, tenderly. Then she faces her company and cheers again.
He realizes that she’s not forcing her high spirits to encourage the troops, the way he is. She is actually looking forward to the battle, to the challenge. Even having seen what this war did to her aunt, her father, her brother, all the others, she’s still excited. She still thinks she can win.
It’s true that she has led the troops home before. In victory, or if not exactly victory, at least alive. Fewer every time. The man remembers how they once filled this hall, back when her father sat in that chair. Back at the beginning of these wars, when he was still only the third child of a jaen, a long-guest from faraway Rasqearo. He followed her father to war that time, in his shiny new chest plate and his first real sword. And the next time, and the next. And the time her father came home in a box.
Every time was supposed to be the last time. Yet here they are, again.
He tries not to think about all those who never returned. He tries not to see their faces on those around the tables now. He fails. So many of these faces are the children of those gone before, with achingly familiar noses and eyebrows and chins, with the same ways of howling with laughter as they slam their cups on the tables.
So many are not much more than children. The man reassures himself that they have been trained as well as they could be. Trained constantly, starting at ever-younger ages. For combat. For war. He wonders if they ever do anything anymore but train for combat, for war.
He looks at his son, his eldest child. He thanks Entovan that the boy is still too young to join this company. Next time, though. The man prays there will not be a next time. The boy is eager for it, though, shouting as loudly as his mother. The duke can see it on his son’s face. Bring on the magruks. Let me slay them. Let me show my worth. Let me be the one to save my kingdom.
The man’s sigh feels unnaturally long. He exhales all the hope he has been so carefully cultivating, leaving his chest barren and bitter and tight. He takes a deep breath, trying to pull the lightness back in, but all he gets is sour air. Raising his cup to wet his throat, his hand shakes. Too much wine already. He sets the cup down, careful not to spill it.
Tomorrow, she will be gone. They will all be gone. This hall will be huge in its emptiness. Quiet. Waiting. He remembers the waiting.
The aesorar tries to stand but the chair somehow gets in the way. He wobbles, grabbing the edge of the table to keep from falling. Landing hard on the pillow, he can’t recall why he wanted to get up. He loosens his grip on the table and pats it. Good table. Sturdy table. Dependable table. “Looks like it’s going to be just you and me, table. You’ll still be here for me, right?”
The table does not contradict him.
Next story in this series: Table 2