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The Little Sea

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Kerr had visited Tashbaan with Lune early in their marriage, before they became king and queen of Archenland, but she remembered very little about it. Her main memories were of ornate palaces and villas and tiresome parties that tended to confirm all of her worst prejudices about Calormen and its nobility. Returning as a queen at age 40 was very different. For one thing, a woman her age was not expected to go to the big, glittering parties at the Tisroc’s palace. She wasn't sure whether to be glad to be spared the parties, or resentful at being left on the shelf.

Then she discovered that there were far more interesting gatherings in Tashbaan, to which she was invited.

A few days after arriving in the capital she received an invitation from Faradis Tarkheena to drink tea that afternoon at her townhouse. Kerr wasn’t certain exactly what to expect, but she supposed it would be something like the ladies' parties she had attended 20 years ago: gossip, sweets, dancing, and, if things got silly, perhaps a pillow-fight. But instead she found herself with a group of fascinatingly erudite ladies, mostly over 30 but a few in their 20’s or even younger, discussing history, art, and most of all, politics. They discussed how Aarden Tarkaan was rising in influence and how that might affect trade policy in the Fire Islands; whether the Fourth Vizier ought to be persuaded to change the way a certain sumptuary law was enforced, and if so who was the best person to persuade him.

But it wasn’t all deadly serious—there were incredibly delicious little pastries (must ask for the recipe!), and remarkably frank discussion of matters of the bedroom, and the mature, ribald laughter of mature, ribald women. Kerr was a bit shocked when she realized that two of the ladies were lovers (they didn't even try to hide it), but she did her best to conceal her reaction, because she didn’t want to seem unsophisticated. She had already grasped that she was here on a trial basis, and that if she wanted another invitation she would have to earn it. Apparently she did all right, because Kamaleen Tarkheena invited her to drink tea at her home later in the week.

At her third such salon she met Veledis Tarkheena, a woman about her own age who came from a long line of distinguished scholars. Faradis introduced them, mentioning proudly that both she and Veledis were descended from the great mathematician Aravis Tarkheena of Zalkeen, who had been the first person to construct a proof of Azrooh’s Theorem. Kerr knew nothing of mathematics and had never heard of this or any other theorem, but she realized that this must be a great achievement and responded accordingly. She found Veledis intellectually daunting, but also charming and gracious, and Veledis seemed to take a liking to her. 

At Veledis's own salon the next week the two sat talking for most of the afternoon, and Kerr stayed on after the other guests had taken their leave. Veledis was fascinated by Kerr's descriptions of the court of the Queen of the Seven Isles. She told Kerr about the great Academies of the southern provinces of Calormen, where ladies studied the arts, science, history, and literature.

Eventually talk turned to personal topics: households, marriage, family. Veledis, like many tarkheenas, had been married at 14 and widowed fairly young. She then had the freedom to choose whether to remarry and, having proven her fertility, had the power to negotiate a very favorable marriage contract. Like many widows, she had chosen a tarkaan rather younger than herself for her second husband. She had two sons and a daughter by her first husband, all grown now, and a seven-year-old son by her present husband, Kidrash Tarkaan of Calavar. She hoped to bear at least one more child before she got to be too old—she wanted another daughter. Kerr tried to control her envy. At 40, after many pregnancies, she had no living children. She was a woman battered by fate, and it now seemed likely that she would never bear the child she desperately wanted. Veledis already had grandchildren.

“Is there not a goddess in your country to whom you can appeal?” Veledis asked.

“None,” said Kerr. “There are a few small gods and goddesses, but they are nature spirits, tied to a spring, a tree, a river. They have no power outside their own small realms. The only real god is the Lion.”

“I have heard of the Lion, Aslan. He is a man’s god?”

“He is everybody’s god,” Kerr said.

“But he has no special interest in women, or the problems of women,” Veledis persisted.

“No, I suppose not.”

“A man’s god, then,” said Veledis, decidedly. “I must take you to the Shrine of Sussureth. She is a goddess of the seas—the salt brine of the great ocean, and the little sea of the womb, where life swims into being. She may help you if we approach her in the right way.”

Queen Kerr was dubious. In Archenland the gods of the South were held to be bloodthirsty and cruel. But she had by now learned that many things she had been taught about Calormen were untrue. Veledis assured her that Sussureth did not demand a blood sacrifice. “She accepts women’s blood if you are able to collect it, or red flowers if you are not. Frankly I think she prefers the flowers.” So Kerr agreed to go to the Shrine of Sussureth with Veledis the next day.

The shrine was at the mouth of the river, on the margin of a pungent estuary. It was not at all like the other temples Kerr had seen in Calormen: the huge, ornate temple of Tash, gaudy with gold and jewels, or the soaring, airy temple of Azaroth. The Shrine of Sussureth was a waist-high, semicircular wall, curving toward the water, made of unpolished marble and carved with what appeared to be scenes from the life of the goddess. In the water about 30 feet in front of the shrine was a large rock, encrusted with barnacles and seaweed.

Veledis explained that the goddess did not have a single form, but could appear as any kind of sea creature. “I have seen her most often as a Dolphin or a Seal,” said Veledis, “the forms she finds most convenient for speaking with those who breathe air. But once she was a great Octopus, and once I saw her take the form of a Ray. I have been told that when she is angry she appears as a poisonous Jelly or a great barbed or toothy Fish, but I have not seen her so. I have never incurred her wrath, I am glad to say.”

Kerr tried and failed to imagine what it would be like to confront an angry goddess who had taken the form of a giant, poisonous jellyfish.

“When she appears as a Jelly, how does she speak?” she asked.

“I presume she takes that form when she doesn’t wish to speak at all.”

There were no priests or priestesses and only one other suppliant, a man who knelt before the wall with bowed head, praying in a soft, sing-songy undertone. Veledis ignored him. “Now we call the goddess,” she said. She faced the sea and held out her arms with the palms up. “Hail Sussureth,” she said. “We beseech thee to receive thy daughters Veledis and Kerr.” Veledis then took out a black stone vase and set it on the wall. Both women had brought red flowers, and these they placed in the vase. Veledis hitched herself up and sat on the wall, and Kerr sat next to her, with the vase between them.

“Is that all?” Kerr asked, after a moment.

“That is all. Unlike some gods, Sussureth does not care much for ceremony. She doesn't like flowery language or flattery, either. If we wished to speak to Hahatoth we would need to fast for a day, and then go through many ablutions before being allowed even to enter her temple. Then we would burn incense and chant for hours. Very tedious. Hahatoth is my Patron, but sometimes I think she is a bit too concerned with form over substance.”

“I don’t know if there is any way to call upon the Lion,” Kerr said. “Nobody has seen him in Archenland for many years. Some say he has not been seen since the onset of the Winter. ”

“He doesn’t sound like a very useful god,” Veledis observed.

“He is not a tame lion,” said Kerr, repeating the refrain she had heard ever since childhood.

“He need not be tame,” said Veledis. “But he ought to be more responsive.”

As they sat there waiting for the goddess to appear, Veledis told Kerr more about her country's many gods. Calormene civilization was ancient, but the Empire was not. Kerr knew this, but had not fully realized what it meant. The gods of Calormen familiar to most Northerners—Tash, the God of Fire and Blood; Kakramash, the Goddess of Battle; Zirit, the Destroyer—were gods of Eastern Calormen, the home of the warlike people who had swept west and south as conquerors 200 years ago, forging the diverse regions of Calormen into an empire. “They are crude gods,” said Veledis dismissively, though she admitted to a certain admiration for Zirit’s clarity of purpose. “Sometimes destruction is necessary to create anew,” she said. “I respect Zirit. But Tash? An upstart god. An aesthetic disaster! Unfortunately he has become the Patron of the Empire, and I fear there will be no replacing him.”

The Southern Pantheon certainly sounded more appealing to Kerr: Hahatoth, Sky Goddess, dispenser of justice, sacred to scholars and artisans; her daughters Ishtelah, whose soft white wings welcome the spirits of the virtuous dead, and Zardeenah, Goddess of the night, maidens, and madness; Agnath, Earth Goddess, who governs the harvest, growing things, and erotic love; her sons Bakka, God of Wine and Kalath, God of Earthquakes and of War; Sussureth, Sea Goddess, who oversees trade, travel, music, and matters pertaining to pregnancy and childbirth; and Azaroth, Father God, who stands at the crossroads of Sky, Earth, and Sea, the brother and husband of Hahatoth, Agnath, and Sussureth.

“What does Azaroth do?” Kerr asked.

Veledis thought for a moment. “He is wise, but he does not do very much. Like most men, he leaves practical matters to the womenfolk.”

Kerr laughed. “I see that at least one thing is the same here as it is at home,” she said.

Veledis seemed to be in no hurry. Sussureth always had a great deal to do, she said, but would arrive eventually. The other suppliant left, and the sun reached its zenith and began to descend in the western sky. The tide turned and began to come in. Finally Veledis looked up, responding to some change that Kerr had not noticed. Kerr followed her gaze and saw a giant Dolphin leaping through the waves towards them. Veledis jumped down from her perch on the wall, so Kerr did the same.

The Dolphin dove beneath the waves, and after a moment an enormous Seal bobbed up and hauled itself out upon the rock in front of the shrine.

Veledis inclined her head. "Mother Sussureth, I thank thee for answering our call."

The Seal regarded them shrewdly. “Well, well, well. It is long since I have been called by a daughter of the North!” said the Seal, in a harsh but distinctly feminine voice. Kerr thought she sounded cranky. “Usually they are afraid to call me for fear of offending their god. But if he forsakes them, what should he expect?”

“Mother, dost thou know why we are here?” asked Veledis.

“I have a good guess,” said the goddess. “But you must tell me in your own words." Veledis opened her mouth, but Sussureth interrupted her: "No, Veledis—this Northerner must speak.”

Kerr quailed for a moment, but then her diplomatic training took over. Veledis’s manner of addressing the goddess was her only clue as to how she should behave, so she tried to copy it. She inclined her head as Veledis had done. “Mother Sussureth, I am Kerr, and I am indeed a woman of the North, moved to ask the assistance of a Southern goddess by the extremity of my need.”

“Extremity, eh? How extreme, exactly?”

“Mother, I have lost many babes in the womb—so many that I no longer count them. Two were born fully formed, but never breathed. Only one of my children was born alive, and she did not see her first birthday. Now I fear that I may never have another. That is why I have called upon you.”

“Once they’re born alive they’re out of my hands, my girl. All mortals must take their chances.”

“I understand, Mother. But the loss of my daughter has made the other losses more difficult to bear.”

The Seal examined her for a moment. Kerr felt uncomfortable, but steeled herself not to shrink away from that gaze. “Why should I help you?” Sussureth asked.

“Mother, I see no reason why you should. Only that it is your divine nature to assist women such as I.”

The Seal chuckled. “That’s a surprisingly good answer,” she said. She slid off the rock and into the water again. Kerr feared for a moment that Sussureth had gone, but then she saw her—huge, gleaming, ungainly—splashing shoreward through the murky water. The Seal came to a halt in the shallows, resting on the silty bottom of the estuary, partially submerged.

“Come closer,” said the Seal. “I will not leave the water. You must wade. And don't forget to bring those flowers.”

Kerr briefly considered hiking up her skirts, but she thought that Sussureth might take this as an insult. Luckily, knowing that she would be visiting a shrine at the muddy river mouth, she had worn an old gown. She shucked off her petticoat, gave it to Veledis, and took the flowers from her. Then she stepped into the water and waded toward the Seal, her feet sinking into the silt with every step. Her skirts clung to her legs, and a couple of times she lost her balance and nearly fell headlong into the water. By the time she reached the Seal, the water was well above her knees and she was wet nearly all over.

The Seal towered above her, a glossy mountain of flesh. She raised her flipper to touch Kerr’s lower belly and bent her head to breathe into Kerr's face—a fresh, salty breath, not unpleasant, but bracing. Kerr was suddenly more awake than she had been in a very long time. “That ought to do it,” said Sussureth. “But I advise you to see Veledis’s midwife before going back to the North, as well. It never hurts to be thorough.”

“Mother, I thank you,” said Kerr.

"Just drop the flowers in the water," Sussureth said, and Kerr obeyed. The flowers floated. Kerr and the Seal watched them silently as they began to drift away.

"Mother..." Kerr began.

“I knew you'd have another question. I can always tell,” said the Seal smugly.

“Mother, it is only that…earlier you said Northerners rarely appeal to you, in fear of offending our god. Do you think what we have done here will offend him?”

“It’s a little late to be asking that, isn’t it?”

“Mother, I did not ask you about it before because I knew that your answer would not dissuade me from accepting any gift you might choose to give me. But, in receiving your gift, have I forsaken the god of my youth? If so, I will not repent. I only wish to know.”

“Aslan has nothing against me, as far as I know,” said the Seal. “And he’s not usually the jealous sort—at least, not in this world.”

“I thank you, Mother.”

“He’ll be around soon, you know,” said Sussureth thoughtfully. “I can feel the time is ripe. I’m not sure you’ll like what he has planned for you, though. He has a bad habit of making everything too complicated. He insists that all intelligent beings have free will, but he can’t resist trying to manipulate them into doing what he wants them to do. And then if they don’t do what he wants, he gets into a snit and appears in all his glory to dispense justice. He’s not a bad fellow, mind you, just a bit of an egotist. But then, aren’t we all? And his schemes generally work out all right in the end. More or less.”

Kerr had no idea what any of this meant, so she repeated, “I thank you, Mother."

“Don’t thank me again, will you? It gets tedious. But I do like to know how things turn out, so give me some more flowers after the baby’s born. Toss them into the sea anywhere. I’ll find them.”

“Of course, I will do as you say, Mother….” Kerr couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t sound like thanks. The Seal started unceremoniously galumphing away. When she got to deeper water she dove and did not resurface.

Still feeling preternaturally alert from effect of the goddess's breath, Kerr waded back to Veledis. The dress was ruined, of course.

“I am sorry I did not think to advise you to bring a change of clothing,” Veledis said.

“It’s all right. It’s a warm enough day, and I don’t mind a little wet. Do you think this will work?”

“Sussureth usually does what she says she will. No god is completely predictable, but she is more straightforward than most.”

Kerr nodded. “She suggested I visit your midwife before I go home,” she said, and Veledis agreed that this was a good idea, as well.

 

After Kerr returned to Archenland she and Veledis exchanged a few letters. Kerr didn’t hide this from her husband, but neither did she talk about it, because she sensed that Lune didn’t really approve of the friendship. Soon after returning home she fell pregnant. Once every seven days she drank the tea that Veledis's midwife had given her, and in March she wrote to Veledis that she was due in June, and that the Anvard midwife thought it was twins—which would certainly explain all the kicking. By then Veledis knew that she was also pregnant, but before she had a chance to write to her friend about it, the aging Tisroc, who was growing increasingly suspicious and mistrustful, forbade any correspondence between his subjects and people in the North, except on matters of trade or business. He had his agents open all letters leaving the empire, and Veledis judged it too dangerous to write. So the correspondence ended.

In June Kerr gave birth to healthy twin sons, and in July she traveled down to the mouth of the Winding Arrow River to cast red flowers into the sea.