The Shivering Harvest

The Shivering Harvest

by Ben Spencer

     Two weeks before the Shivering Harvest, the citizens of Orgos–otherwise known as the city of the five moons–gather in the ruins of the Sea Keeper’s palace, to watch the candidates for moon priest campaign for the honor. The night marks the unofficial beginning of the festival season. Besides the competition for moon priest, there are revelries galore: adults under the influence of black tongue rum accompany mesmerized, moonwoozy children through a palace of nocturnal, maritime-themed wonders. Vendors sell, among other things, whips of phosphorescent rainbow kelp, paper cups filled to the brim with pinkfish roe, ornamented oyster shells, slivers of fresh-cut crudo, and glass jars containing gobe fish, the strikingly beautiful but startlingly aggressive sea creature that never fails to display its razor-sharp teeth. The fish are a big hit, and the children, giddy from eating sugar-coated sea peas coated with starfish jelly, carry the small gobe fish down to the large aquarium where two gorge gobe fish are slated to fight. There they stand in fearful wonder as sailors raise the glass partition separating the gorge gobe, an act quickly followed by a violent clash between much larger versions of the fish in the children’s jar. In an instant the aquarium is filled with a nauseatingly rich kaleidoscope of colors, as the fish tear at each other’s bodies, causing a shower of scales and blood. It isn’t immediately clear, but the metallic-blue gorge gobe wins, something the old hands in the audience had already guessed, based on the explosion of blood-orange scales at the battle’s outset.

Some of the children, disturbed, tug at their parents’ shirts with tearful eyes, and ask to go home. But these are in the minority. Many and more find a friend, and, eager to recreate what they have witnessed, pour their gobe fishes from one jar into an occupied other.

The festival continues. The aquarium is located near the seawall, so the festivalgoers naturally migrate back into the heart of the ruined palace, toward the throne room where the Sea Keepers of yore once sat. They walk across a faded tile mosaic celebrating the bounty of the Celestial Ocean: under the light of four of the five moons, it’s possible to see the pictures as the artisans intended them. The tiles are stewed in a thousand blue hues cut with splashes of lighter and darker colors: all across the sand- and wind-worn floor, creatures of the deep stir in the soup, whales and sturgeons and jellyfish and oysters and man-o-wars and manta rays and, abruptly, octopi, octopi, octopi. The octopi mark a stark contrast in colors, as their orange, soft bodies bring the tile to vibrant life, aliens sweeping across a blue landscape. The cephalopods gather in ever greater numbers, the orange overwhelming the blue, until, suddenly, the tiles change over to a deep oceanic black. Up close, crowded with the masses, it’s impossible to see the shape formed by the black outline. But from the raised platform where the Sea Keeper once sat, the kraken takes it form, its luminescent yellow eyes staring up at the now absent throne.

Once the throne room is full, the performances begin. The Sea Keeper’s terrace is a site of once unimaginable power that has been reduced to a stage. Remains of marble pillars constitute the backdrop. Beyond that, the night sky. The old hands in the audience remember a time when there were no performances, a time when only speeches were made. But their memories are foggy at best, and, if pressed, they admit that the spirit of revelry was in effect even then.

The evening’s first performance involves a host of jugglers. At first, only a single man takes the stage. He tosses coral-colored balls into the air in ever-increasing numbers, until, when it seems he is on the verge of surpassing one human’s ability to keep multiple objects airborne, he is joined onstage by two others who pluck part of his burden from the air. But the relief is only temporary. The new jugglers quickly add their own objects to the mix–in this instance barnacle knives–until they too are relieved by additional jugglers. The jugglers multiply in short order; soon the stage is covered by twenty or more of their ilk. The air is filled with a spellbinding array of sea-themed objects: along with the coral-colored balls and barnacle knives there are starfish, sand moons, conch shells, and more. At the back of the stage, two men toss freshly caught needlefish back and forth, not juggling them per se, but wowing the crowd with each toss. The sleek, moon-bright bodies of the needlefish fly through the air like horizontal lightning strikes.

When the performance reaches its peak, Dogzmir Jelshuun walks onto the stage, smiling and waving. He is one of the wealthiest men in all of Orgos and has been moon priest thrice before. The jugglers are his–he paid to bring the act to Orgos. Although it is festival season and Dogzmir is a candidate for moon priest, he is dressed in a sumptuous seafoam cloak, having chosen, as is the modern fashion, to eschew the penitent garb. His legendary black moustache is longer than ever, oiled to a sheen. He carries a silver fishing spear with which he playfully teases the crowd, pretending to poke at them. The crowd cheers his antics with an enthusiasm that suggests Dogzmir is well positioned to become moon priest for the fourth time.

Additional acts follow. Four singers from Cherub, the acclaimed singing troupe, stir the crowd with Shivering Harvest songs; they rework a handful of the lyrics to praise their sponsor, Thanor Brogslan. Lillia Cwyn, proprietress of the Gold & White market shops that line Inkspell Harbor, displays a menagerie of wildlife brought from the far reaches of the known world, most popular of which are a large Deathbird from the Seven Isles and a white-eyed, black-and-silver-striped tiger from Drumsboard. Two groups of actors (four apiece) on miniature wooden boats reenact the Battle of the Jagged Tooth in support of Gego Morsk. And last, Syesktra Wartrap, a newcomer to the campaign, brings onstage a collection of painters that transform a large, empty canvas into a hypnotic rendering of Orgos on the first night of the harvest with stunning speed. The completed painting shows all five moons, at last positioned in the firmament.

As the painting is removed from the stage, the crowd begins to murmur. The speeches are next, and, if this year is typical of others, the night’s revelry will soon be interrupted. Sure enough, Deyodi Sealaw takes the stage. Deyodi claims lineage from the Sea Keepers that once sat the throne, and, like his father and grandfather before him, he launches a doomed campaign for moon priest every festival season. Unlike the other candidates, he sponsors no performance to boost his campaign. Worse, he dresses in the penitent garb: Deyodi takes the stage with indecorous ropes of brown-green seaweed covering his body, beneath which he is dressed in a coarse leather tunic. Bits of seashells and rock are tangled in his bird’s-nest beard. His face is smeared with wet sand. He looks like a glob of sea phlegm hacked up by the Celestial Ocean.

His appearance is intentional. He reminds the crowd of this when he speaks. “I stand before you a willing sacrifice to the Eternal Kraken. We Orgosians have forgotten that it is the Eternal Kraken who permits Wyyr, the fifth moon, to take its place in the sky. We Orgosians, in our pampered delusion, have come to believe that it is the moon priest that summons Wyyr. This is sacrilege. The moon priest presents himself solely for the purpose of death. The bounty of the harbor belongs to the Eternal Kraken. It is only through the Eternal Kraken’s munificence that the fifth moon appears and Orgos is permitted to reap the Shivering Harvest. There will come a year when the Eternal Kraken will look to our sacrifice to see if we are worthy of reaping the bounty of the harbor. If the moon priest is a penitent person, dressed in the sorrow of the sea, the Eternal Kraken will accept our sacrifice and spare Orgos the hunger of a four-moon winter. But if we deliver unto the Eternal Kraken a self-important charlatan, he will reject our sacrifice, and thousands will starve.”

It is the same speech every year. The crowd has long tired of it. People grumble throughout. “Enough of your pious bleating!” someone shouts near the speech’s end. Someone else hurls a whip of rainbow kelp at Deyodi. The kelp strikes him on the face, to the crowd’s great amusement. Inspired, others do the same; within moments both Deyodi and the stage are covered with rainbow kelp. The crowd boos Deyodi with gusto, drowning out his final words. Deyodi persists until the end, ignoring both the flying kelp and the booing. Finished, he holds an impassive pose as the jeering crescendoes. Then, seemingly indifferent to the ire of his fellow citizens, Deyodi leaves the stage, making no effort to shield his body from the unceasing kelp barrage.

The crowd erupts in a great cheer when Deyodi slips out of sight. A collective understanding takes hold: this is the last year Deyodi Sealaw will be permitted to mar the first night of the festival season with his doomsday blatherings. The good citizens of Orgos wait for the Shivering Harvest festival all year. To have it spoiled with talk of an Eternal Kraken undermines the spirit of the season. What Deyodi really wants, all agree, is the five percent harvest take that is gifted to the moon priest. But he will not receive it, now or ever. The age of enriching fearmongering holy men is over. It is better to give the spoils to already wealthy men and women who will add to the extravagance of the season.

Dogzmir Jelshuun steps onto the stage to give his speech. The crowd erupts in cheers. This, they know, is their man. The Shivering Harvest is a time to celebrate the bounty of Orgos, and who better than Dogzmir exemplifies the season’s abundance? After tonight, he will be honored as the moon priest for the fourth time. And in two weeks, when Wyyr appears high in the sky and the harvest season begins, Orgos will happily reward Dogzmir with his five percent share.

Dogzmir is carrying his fishing spear once more. Before beginning his speech, he stalks the Sea Keeper’s platform, joyously poking the spear at the boisterous crowd.

#

     On the first night of the Shivering Harvest, the citizens of Orgos line the waterfront of Inkspell Harbor. The sky is as clear as the looking-glass sea it admires itself in. Out in the water, Dogzmir Jelshuun stands aboard the merchant ship Abundance, ready to play his part as the moon priest. He is easy to spot. He stands at the stern of the ship, facing the shore, dressed in a brocaded aquamarine cloak. Atop his head he wears a gold crown sporting trident prongs. In his hand he holds the same fishing spear he teased the crowd with two weeks prior.

Two of the moons–Dust and Dyophlyn–are already in the sky when the sun sets. They are soon joined by moons three and four, the nimble Theus and the lumbering Jackjar. Combined, the four moons bring the night to life, suffusing Orgos and Inkspell Harbor in a sort of gloaming glow. Fishing during the four-moon season is better than at other parts of the year, but it pales in comparison to the five-moon bonanza. Wyyr’s presence in the sky both compels sea life into the harbor and makes sea life impossibly easy to catch; the light from the five combined moons creates a three-dimensional field of nighttime luminescence that permits those fishing the harbor to collect their catch with ease. The Shivering Harvest lasts only two weeks (the amount of time Wyyr is in the sky), but, for those two weeks, Orgos reaps a larger bounty than it does the entirety of the rest of the year.

The crowd cheers as Abundance begins moving toward the mouth of the harbor. Suddenly, the ship comes alight in a blaze of lamps, allowing the crowd to better track its progress out to sea. Onshore, a band cues up an orchestral swell, a famous piece better known as Voyage of the Moon Priest. Hungry eyes scan the ocean horizon, hoping to be the first to spot Wyyr. Everyone is eager for the glory of pointing it out to their neighbors.

The moment nears. Abundance steadies at the mouth of the harbor, floating in the space between Orgos and the developing moon. The crowd quiets, waiting, waiting. Every year there is a suspended moment before Wyyr’s appearance when it seems plausible that the moon might not appear at all. But the moment is always fleeting, making it seem in hindsight irrational, like the fear that one might forget how to breathe.

Then–there! A bulge at the horizon, a yellow light. The crowd, primed for celebration, cheers in pockets, while waiting for the indistinct image at the harbor’s end to materialize into a moon. But as the seconds pass, the crowd collectively begins to realize that something is wrong. Wyyr is a white light, not yellow; and what’s more, the yellow light is not singular but plural, two pinpricks of luminescence embedded in a black bulging mass. Furthermore, the mass appears to be the cause of ocean swells upon which the ship Abundance has begun to rock.

The cheers change over into a disturbed murmuring, the babble of fear. Everyone is talking and pointing when, suddenly, the black mass rises high above the surface and, with great force, generates a gigantic wave that sends the ship Abundance screaming toward the shore. A moment’s confusion changes over to terror. The ship and the tsunami slam into the shore at breakneck speed. Hundreds if not thousands are swept out to sea. The desperate cries of the incipient drowned are quickly muffled by the angry, frothing ocean. Abundance smashes into the wooden architecture of the Gold & White. Its hull turns on its side, causing the mast to spear through storefront windows like a blunt wooden sword. Ships in the harbor careen like listing drunks. Many capsize, beginning a choppy voyage to the harbor floor.

Citizens on higher ground watch with their mouths agape. They stand on hillsides and in the upper stories of buildings that didn’t suffer the brunt of the wave and they watch Orgos collapse. Even in their trauma, a handful search the sky for Wyyr. But instead of finding it, a four-moon light redirects their attention to the harbor, where a dark and monstrous shadow patrols the waters.

The Eternal Kraken. Come to claim the harvest.

#

     For a fortnight, any ship that touches the water disappears into the Kraken’s maw.

The surviving citizens of Orgos, stunned by their new reality, attempt to rebuild. But they are fighting the tide of a frightening new time. The stores of seafood in the underground ice caves aren’t as full as they should be. And, for the moment at least, no ship can set sail from Orgosian shores without meeting its doom.

After two weeks, the Shivering Harvest season ends. The Eternal Kraken departs. Fishing resumes. But the Orgosian fleet is greatly reduced, and what ships that make their way into the water find that the bounty of Inkspell Harbor is greatly diminished. The Kraken has eaten almost everything.

The season of suffering has arrived.

Seventeen Years Later

     Deyodi Sealaw lays in state in the throne room of the Sea Keeper’s palace. The line to see him stretches for nearly a mile, winding out of the palace and into the Orgosian streets, where vendors are selling seasonal snacks. Although the procession is somber inside the palace walls, outside on the street the mood is relaxed. Those in line, cognizant of how long the wait will be, purchase food from the vendors, seahorse skewers being a favorite. They comment on the tastiness, and some, when they are done, purchase a dessert of sugar sea snaps as well.

High in the sky, two moons reside. When the sun sets, two more will join them. It’s four-moon season, and the fishing is good. It will only get better when the Shivering Harvest season begins. In quiet conversations, fishermen speculate on the season’s haul. The halcyon days of yore have returned, one man says, as another nods. But only because we have humbled ourselves before the Eternal Kraken, the other replies. They grow quiet, chewing on seahorse skewers. They both think the same thought: now that Deyodi Sealaw is dead, who will be the next moon priest?

Similar conversations take place up and down the line. Most speak of the dearly departed Deyodi in hushed, reverent terms. He died a living example to us all, they agree. But there are other, quieter whispers. Praise Wyyr the old warlock is dead, one man, a wealthy merchant, says. He was on too close terms with the Kraken. The merchant speaks in a joshing tone, but his sentiment is shared by others. For sixteen seasons the citizens of Orgos watched Deyodi paddle to the mouth of Inkspell Harbor on the first night of the Shivering Harvest, wondering if this would be the year the Eternal Kraken rose from the deep and accepted Deyodi as a suitable sacrifice. But the season never came, and now that Deyodi is dead, there are those who wonder if the moon priest wasn’t somehow in league with the feared sea creature.

Slowly, the line winds inside the Sea Keeper’s palace. The palace is much changed from what it was seventeen years ago. Deyodi spent the vast majority of his accrued Shivering Harvest wealth restoring the palace to its long-ago glory. Now the palace is a sacred place: every inch of its interior is designed to remind the citizens of Orgos of their connection to the sea. Pillars carved to resemble conch shells form a colonnade at the palace entrance, and from there the line goers work their way toward the great hall, where the once faded mosaic tile is alive in freshly painted colors. That the frugal and penitent Deyodi chose to spend so lavishly on the restoration of the palace shocked many, but he insisted until the day of his death that glorifying the ocean was a sacred obligation. “It is when we fail to recognize the primacy of the ocean that we begin to mistake ourselves as its master. We reap from the sea what the sea permits. When we take too much, the Eternal Kraken reminds us of our place.”

Near Deyodi’s kelp-covered coffin, two of Orgos’s most prominent citizens stand watch. Thanor Brogslan, the wealthy trader and onetime candidate for moon priest, has remade himself as a penitent extraordinaire. He is covered in wet sand and seaweed. As the citizenry approaches the coffin, he beats his chest with a steady hand while making a low moaning sound. For years now he has been Deyodi’s foremost disciple. Deyodi accepted his conversion, which made it possible for the rest of the population to accept it as well. The memory of Cherub singers extolling Thanor’s praises on the night of the moon priest campaign seventeen years prior has largely faded.

On the opposite side of the coffin stands Gerish Lyc. She is a marvel, all agree. The Woman Who Rebuilt the Harbor, they call her. Ambitious, cunning, and deeply intelligent, she parlayed the money she made from owning one of the few surviving ships after the season of the Eternal Kraken into a real estate venture that won her the land where the Gold & White once stood. The harbor today is a testament to her vision. During rebuilding, she consulted with Deyodi, and now the harbor front blends the commercial and the ascetic with such graceful symmetry that Gerish is beyond reproach.

Everyone who sees Thanor and Gerish standing beside Deyodi’s coffin understands the significance of their respective presences. One of them will be the next moon priest.

At last the line goers reach the casket. Inside lies Deyodi Sealaw. He looks stiff, inhuman, devoid of the fierce spirit that enabled him to lead Orgos out of the dark night that followed the season of the Eternal Kraken. In short, he looks like a corpse. The citizens of Orgos pay their respects, but their thoughts linger little on Deyodi. The old moon priest is dead. It is time to move on. It is time to embrace the manifold potentialities of what comes next.

After passing the coffin, the line quickly leads outside again. The day is cheerfully bright. The moons Dust and Dyophlyn are settled in a sunlit sky, lazing through their long orbits. Vendors are present on this side of the palace as well, ready to serve those who abstained from eating at the entrance. The mood isn’t quite festival-like, but it is relaxed, quasi-celebratory. Deyodi was admired and respected, but he wasn’t loved. Now that he has passed on, it seems possible that Orgos might be able to strike a new balance less repressive than the last seventeen years. The ice caves are well stocked. There is little waste, even during the Shivering Harvest season. The position of the moon priest is respected and revered, and not treated like a reflection of the citizenry’s base wants and desires.

Might now be the time for a little indulgence? Might now be the time for a little fun?

As they linger in the streets, some of the citizens turn their heads and let their gazes wander past the seawall, toward the horizon at the edge of the harbor. They visualize the first night of the Shivering Harvest season, when Wyyr in all its triumphant glory will return to usher in a season of plenty. They feel the thrill of the evening in their bones. And this year–a new moon priest! He or she will row out to the harbor’s edge, and then shortly after the moon will appear, and all will be well.

There is a different possibility, of course. A possibility that the Eternal Kraken will rise from the depths to consider the Orgosian sacrifice. But that possibility, the citizens know, is remote. It hasn’t happened in the last sixteen years, and, before that, perhaps a hundred years past. But on the chance that the Eternal Kraken does come, their priest will be a pious one. Be it Thanor Brogslan or Gerish Lyc, this time the Eternal Kraken will accept their gift, and return to the Celestial Ocean, leaving Orgos unmolested.

And they will reap the spoils of the Shivering Harvest.

You Punched the Bursar?

Writing Update: Last of the Baronites: 30.5K (31-32K to finish)

In the song “Aaron Burr, Sir,” from the smash Broadway hit Hamilton: An American Musical, Lin Manuel-Miranda takes creative license in imagining Hamilton punching the bursar at Princeton College. Ron Chernow, the author of the excellent Hamilton biography on which the musical is based, reportedly blanched at this historical leap, pointing out that “Alexander Hamilton wasn’t needlessly violent,” and encouraged Miranda to rework the lines.

Miranda left it unchanged.

Why? Because the line in the song is friggin killer, that’s why.

Image result for you punched the bursar memes

That was Miranda’s reasoning, at least. And it’s true. But the line also works because it underscores Hamilton’s intense temperament. Hamilton might not have been needlessly violent, but he was also a self-professed warrior who didn’t mind mixing it up in the public sphere, and from there it’s not too far of a leap to imagine that he’d resort to punching a bursar if said bursar was thwarting his academic ambitions.

Which leads me to my forthcoming novella, The Last of the Baronites: Novella Three of The Deer King series. If you consider yourself a fan of historical fantasy, well then, by golly, this is the novella for you. If you’ve read the first two novellas, you’ve likely noticed that the setting is a fantasized version of America at the end of the colonial era/dawn of the United States. But what you haven’t seen are characters inspired by historical figures.

That’s about to change.

The protagonist of Last of the Baronites is my re-imagining of a young John Quincy Adams. You’ll also see appearances by figures loosely based on John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and, anachronistically, Thaddeus Stevens (Stevens was a U.S. Representative during the Civil War).

(Side Note: Emmaline Rain is also back. She’s not inspired by a historical figure, but, for those of you who have read The Deer King, you know it doesn’t make her any less important.)

Like any truth-sabotaging novelist, I’ve taken the liberty of altering both the personal histories and the temperament of my characters as needs be to fit the story. Some hew closer to their historical counterparts, while others are radical departures. But what I hope you’ll find is the same grain of truth that runs through Miranda’s decision to have Hamilton ‘punch the bursar’: the nodding-your-head-saying-“Yeah,-I-could-see-him-doing-that” grain of truth, whether or not it ever actually happened.

Notes:

My next blog post will announce the arrival of Last of the Baronites, which will hopefully take place at the end of August, if not earlier. Thank you to everyone who has read the first two posts since my decision to start blogging on a more regular basis. I’ve written for nearly two decades now, but blogging is a different art, and, after reflecting on my last post, I know there’s room for improvement. What I’ve tried to do since putting out my work is to look for natural ways to promote my writing without it feeling forced, hackneyed, or too much like a sales pitch. I’ve decided that blogging and posting links to social media is a much more natural fit for me than posting on social media.

If you’re visiting the site and would like to follow the blog, please look to the right hand side of the webpage ———–> and click follow the blog. After entering your email you will receive an email anytime I post a blog (no more than once a month) or when I put out a new release.

Book Recommendation: Fate and Furies by Lauren Groff.

Song Recommendation: “Dead in the Water” by the one and only Noel Gallagher.

Until next time…