Tuesday, August 17, 2010

In Which a Couple of Questions are Resolved

From the diary of Dulcie, Crown Princess of Bentlefay:

(continued from here)

Lynde came hurrying up to me as I shook my paralyzed hand.

Ow,” I exclaimed. “I never knew a grown man’s groin had so much … bone behind it.”

“It’s my fault,” Lynde said remorsefully. “When we were practicing, I never gave you anything to actually hit. I suppose I thought it was just going to be for fun.”

“It does feel a great deal different from drill,” I admitted. “But the point is, it’s over. And I for one will never be setting foot on a ship at sea again … unless it’s for your wedding.”

“My – oh.” Lynde looked puzzled, and then enlightened. A maidenly blush crept into her cheeks and then ebbed away.

“No – you’re wrong,” she went on softly, gazing across the deck to where Masters was directing operations. “Although, it was … nice, I won’t deny that.”

“It certainly looked nice from where I was standing,” I interjected, but she went on as though I had not spoken.

“It taught me … well, you remember what we talked about the night before we left?”

“Goodness, yes. It taught you that you’re desirable, and by someone who ought to know. He certainly has done you a service, if that’s the case.”

“Yes. But when one is in trouble, one realizes what is most important in life. Captain Masters is an honorable man – a strong leader, and an excellent fighter. But all the time I was locked up in that disgusting little galley – they eat an awful lot of fish on shipboard – I could think of nothing but Tom.”

She sighed. “I’ve been a fool.”

“Well,” I said, “if you can look Masters in the eye and say so outright, you’re a stronger woman than I am.”

Masters himself came striding up at that moment and I added hastily, “I’ll just leave you two alone.”

But they had already forgotten me, and I edged away unnoticed.

Long Bob was attending personally to the strapping up of Bleake’s wrists, and making a meticulously thorough job of it as far as I could tell. Bleake himself had lost the cringing fear he had shown before Masters’ sword point, and was endeavoring to be haughty and above it all.

“Don’t imagine you can keep me prisoner for long,” he sneered when he saw me. “My destiny is for greater things.”

“Listen, it isn’t as though we want you,” I retorted. “It wouldn’t even arise if you didn’t keep trying to conquer us. What on earth do you need with Bentlefay, anyhow? I’ll bet you could have stayed at Norhammer for as long as you wanted and ended up with lands of your own if you’d thought to flatter Duke Harker a little more.”

“A sheltered life as a court lickspittle? No, thank you. Any toady with court manners can find himself a comfortable berth to grow old in. My talents belong on the stage of nations!” A burst of spray flew out of his mouth with the cascading sibilants, and he surreptitiously wiped his chin on his shoulder.

“Well, kingmaking hasn’t worked out so well for you so far, has it?” I said kindly. “Once we get back to Bentlefay I can set you up with some embroidery. We wouldn’t want you to get bored in our dungeons.”

Bleake’s face boiled purple and I would always be sorry not to hear what he would have responded with, but at that moment a sound of roiling water off the port side announced a diversion.

“Ah,” said Long Bob. “We have visitors. Stow this one safely away,” he said to one of his men as he handed Bleake off to him, “but fetch the other one here. We’ve got a bit of a surprise for him.”

Harker was brought between two men, his hands bound and his face still brittle and drawn. Long Bob, at his most expansive, took him in hand.

“Now, your grace,” he boomed. “Some friends of mine have arrived that I want to introduce you to. You’ve never met,” he added with somewhat of a peculiar smile, “though I understand that you think there’s a connection.”

We all went over to the port side of the ship with the manner of a diplomatic entourage, to be met with a sight out of my wildest imagination. Scattered through the water between the Porteous and the Golden Gull, some perched sidesaddle on scaled horselike monsters, some propelled by their own glistening tails, and a few floating on elaborate gilded rafts like royal litters, were the merfolk – dozens of them. They were as impressive as any court caravan I had ever seen and more fantastic than any I could have imagined. I was dazzled.

My own acquaintance Kah-ee-lah was in front and waved at me with a sunny smile. She was even more striking in the bright sunlight and her compatriots looked very like her – dark hair and eyes, blunt slanting features, and dusky brown skin. None of them bothered with any clothing but several of them wore jewels in their hair and around their necks and arms. They looked elementally beautiful, regally proud, and not even remotely like a single one of the Norhammers. I shot a look at Duke Harker, who was opening and shutting his mouth.

“What – who – what – who –” he began.

“This,” Long Bob said with relish, “is the Ah-lo-ah-lee-ee clan of merfolk, and unless I am mistaken, they have something to say to you.”

Six broad-chested mermen pushed forward one of the great rafts, and its occupant, a barrel-chested sage with curly white hair and a diadem of purple shells, lifted an ornate megaphone and spoke in a voice like a roll of thunder.

“Harker of Norhammer,” he said. “I am King Mahi and I speak on behalf of my people. It has been known for generations that your race claims kinship with ours. Until today it has been a cause for our mockery, but now that you have used the claim to justify conquest, it has become a matter of honor.

“Let it be known, Harker of Norhammer and all others of your blood – we repudiate your claim and your actions. Your ships will no longer be tolerated in our waters, and all the tides of the ocean and the four winds of heaven will stand against you. Now, have you any response?”

Harker opened and shut his mouth twice more, and turned furiously on Long Bob. “They can’t all look like that,” he hissed. “They’re nothing like us. They can’t possibly all look like that. What do I say to him?”

“It’s true I haven’t met all of them,” admitted Long Bob easily, “but I must say none of the ones I’ve ever seen could possibly be related to you. I’m thinking they have the right of it, and unless you want to antagonize them further, I’d stick to apologizing for the mistake and thanking them for their time.”

King Mahi had already grown impatient and cleared his throat meaningfully into his megaphone.

“Oh. Yes,” called Harker, and his voice sounded thin and whining by comparison. “Er – I apologize for the mistake, and, er – thank you for your time.”

“Noted,” said the king. “Mind my words, and deliver them back to your people.”

And in a single motion, quick as thought, the entire contingent sank beneath the surface of the water as though sucked through a straw, leaving nothing but a settling mass of foam to mark their passage. We all stared stupidly at it for a moment, and then Kah-ee-lah surfaced briefly by herself, blew Harker a prolonged raspberry, and was gone.

(continued here)

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