The Age of Ice is coming to an end at long last, the third of the Elemental Ages in this Great Cycle. The Age of Fire draws near, though there are those who do not wish to see it come, and the battle lines are being drawn.
A Sign is coming to pass, the Shattering of the Chains. On the prison moon of Dis, the spells that hide the Dry Ice Mines from the light are failing. The rebellion has freed the workers long since, but now the rusted Ice Chains which once bound them and kept them weak at best, paralyzed in a deep freeze when punished, are cracking and exploding beneath the Sun’s warmth; the metal falling into pieces as the ice vanishes into glittering fogs.
I cannot see them, but I can see the plumes of ice arising from the deserted moon as I walk the Path of Eons. Each step shows me another place and time, and in the distance I watch endless shifting horizons, sunrises and sunsets. If I step off of it, I could end up anywhere, though the chance of walking beyond the Veil into death is high.
Still, this is my best opportunity of seeing the Tournament, already in progress. These games are not for coin or fame, they are no less than a war for the survival of the Age and those in power during it. They take the form of a sporting challenge for the entertainment of the masses, so rules may be set and a victor determined, but the Tournament is as serious an affair as has ever been.
I find the proper point and chance a step. I have arrived.
This part of the game might be considered unusual, for it is not a contest of physical prowess, but of musical. The Players are putting on their best performances, and the judge is the exalted and dreaded Crimson King.
Each ruler reigns in the name of one of the Seven Holy Rays: Crimson, Black, Purple, Yellow, Green, Blue and White. They have each had their time and it has come back around to the Crimson King of the End of the Age, considered the wisest and most fearsome.
The Purple Piper, a musician from the reign not of the last Purple King, but the one before him, has had many decades to perfect his art. He plays and it is held the stars themselves will dance, must dance to his tune. He is giving the world the gift of his best work now. A choir near him blends their voices into his notes to form an ethereal chorus which must sound like the music of the Highest Spheres. They are singing three lullabies in a tongue which was old when this Cycle began.
Time passes. I do not know who won this battle or performance, it will be judged in time. The Crimson King and his court do not make their decisions lightly, and all things must be weighed.
Night has fallen, and the city of Crimson Tears which surrounds the majestic castle is secured. The gates are shut, the guards patrol, and poets say not even dreams are allowed to escape, nor become contaminated by the unworthy thoughts of the lower-borne outside.
I desire to enter, but I am not of the true blood. I do not have the mind to come up with more than this simple scheme; to wait outside the house of the Holy Pilgrim until he returns from his desert Seeking and is allowed to enter, or until the gates are again lifted so traders and other lesser citizens may come and go.
I am surprised when I hear cries of “Stand aside! The procession arrives, stand aside!” The guards must raise the gates and get out of the way for the funeral march of Lady Elesande, beloved sister of the Crimson King. They will be headed straight for his Majesty’s castle, that he might pay last respects. The once ruler and still gracious Black Queen, an ally of the Crimson King, leads the march, chants the prayers of rest and signals the dirge singers. I slip in among them, unnoticed.
The procession path is crossed by another group as I move through the streets. They, too, are headed for the castle and must not be stopped. But to halt the funeral march is forbidden. This should be interesting.
They are the Bearers of the Bells. It seems ridiculous to me, people still carrying these cracked brass relics of another era. If they still ring at all, they will sound discordant. I believe they are needed for the Summoning though. The spirit of the Fire Witch must be evoked and give counsel to the Crimson Court. A representative of the Fire side, her words must be taken into account in judging the Tournament.
To my disappointment, the two settle their differences with a quick, polite word, and are on their way.
All eyes are on them though, and I take the opportunity to continue my own journey to the castle.
I arrive in time to see an ironic scene. The gardener, busy planting an evergreen in an almost ceremonial fashion in a special spot, fails to notice he has stepped on an existing flower, crushing it into the earth. I suppress a chuckle as I follow the important people in the door.
I have made it to the castle. The final shows will be held soon, followed by the judgments, but for now everyone is asleep. I find my way to an unoccupied room and steal a bed, hoping no one realizes I do not belong in the morning before I wake, and throws a fit.
My sleep is restless and my dreams are strange. The Ship of the Holy Rays, containing all of the rulers I have ever heard of and the Avatar of the Light sails in a watery version of the Path of Eons, a prismatic jewel sailing eternity. In its wake a colorful wind blows around me and overwhelms my senses with odd scents, feelings and even tastes. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter, each passes my nose and mouth as though I were dining on a feast. I run upon this wind and delight in the vibrant madness.
The Avatar calls out and before her the Juggler of Patterns appears. All the delicate balance of the universe is displayed as he adds more and more forces and concepts into his act, keeping up the appearance of effortlessness while such things as good and evil, life and death pass through his fingers. If even one were to drop, all things would suffer. The Avatar laughs in delight watching the show. He lines up all the conflicting forces, manifest as shining spheres, in one hand and raises the other to finish his act. An orchestra begins out of nowhere and he takes a bow, vanishing.
Before I wake, I see the Crimson Court laid out before me, a grinding wheel representing the turning of the Ages displayed near the throne.
The morning does not break, but is brought in upon the soft gray clouds and the gentle tears of widows. The wise laugh at the antics of the foolish and share secret jokes among themselves. Day has come, and undiscovered, I make my way to the Crimson Court to watch one of the last games.
“Are you a seer?” I freeze, pondering what to do. I was seen after all. This could be troublesome. “Uh, yes.” I turn, slow and dramatic.
The old lady smiles. “Please, foretell my next year.”
I nod, still thinking. “Right. Let me see. Ah, there is an omen!” I run down the hall and paw at the air. “Yes, I see…” I look her over, deciding what seems likely. “Great success in your…” She nods, excited. “My weaving.” I let out a breath in relief. “Your weaving! You’ll sell piles of, uh, blank -”
“Clothing.” She smiles.
“Yes, people will come from far and wide for your… clothing!” She laughs and nods.
“Oh thank you. My husband would be so proud.”
I nod. “Yes, he will always look down in approv – “
“Oh, he’s alive. He’s just away.”
I blink “That is what I meant. He will always look, uh, look out for you and approve of your weaving.” She laughs again, presses a coin into my palm and walks on. I examine it, disappointed it’s a copper, not something higher, and pocket it.
I make it into the Crimson King’s courtroom amid a great crowd, gathered to watch the performance. The Yellow Jester, servant of the former Yellow King, is amusing them with jokes I must say I heard once from my grandfather. They, it seems, have not heard them though, and are laughing at each in turn.
Done with old jokes for the moment, he pulls out puppets, takes a moment to reassure the crowd, no matter what they see, the puppets are not evil and will not come to life, and begins the main part of his act. He gently tugs the strings and talks out of the sides of his mouth, and the puppets dance and wisecrack in ways which might get him in trouble if he said such things himself.
The court is entranced, and even the King chuckles and smiles at points.
It is too bad he has a bias, being a personal ally of the Ice Lords, and will likely be soon overthrown and put to death, but the Wheel grinds on.
*All credit goes to King Crimson, for their delightful epic song The Court of the Crimson King. This tale is a kind of tribute, pulling together and interpreting the lyrics into a single plotline. I don’t know if anyone else has written the epic novel it could inspire or perhaps was inspired by, but this is my take.