Arudelle was pleased with himself for finally dyeing his hair in just the way he imagined Mi’Raah did.
“You’ll all go blind!” He laughed, and pointed at each of his sailors. One by one, Arudelle informed them that he was the High Priest of the Sea, and all the seals and whats-its obeyed him–and Jarshaun, up in the Crow’s Nest, was going to die of the searing-welts one day soon, because the High Priest’s power was of the water and any creature of that element, even men, came under his domain.
They were disturbed at first, but their young King struck boot-heel on deck and suddenly the hilarity of it occurred to them.
“All you men are disgusting, whore-mongering wretches. I love it. Searing-welts for all!”
“Rah! Huzzah!” they roared and cheered back.
“Mi’Raah.” Arudelle minded them, with a lifted finger. “In fact, actually, here she is. Right on time.” this King of the Siren, wearing light silver hair, fly-away in the sea’s breeze, he leaned over the gangway. Far below the wood railing and directly beneath himself, a curious glass bottle ebbed in the water. It should have been easily missed, by the ship’s almost sensual swollen black hull, but sunlight (which Mi’Raah often nagged in Arudelle’s ear, should be called star-light no matter the hour) glittered the yellow glass and helped it to show through clots of fish-blood and strings of pink sinew and flesh refuse that wafted to the ink, watery surface.
Arudelle instructed the fisherman, Tom, to get it out. The poor man couldn’t quite catch it with silver hook–and so Arudelle sucked his pearl teeth and threw the kerchiefed sea-dog Tommy overboard, by his britches.
“I am Arudelle the Conqueror, a pirate captain! If I want something done then you all should be fearing for your lives. You should be pissing down into your black boots over whether or not the task’ll get done fast enough. Arrr… And, you scurvy, bleedin’ wretches, didn’t we already establish that it would be a searing, injurious piss?”
The other pirates stopped their work and laughed forcefully again.
“Do you see?” Arudelle told the little green parrot who’d frightened away from his shoulder some time ago. It peered down at him from a tangle of nets below view of lowered white sails and wide, hot sky. “They are loyal, they get it…”
The fisherman came back covered in guts and slime. But the fine message-bottle, she was gold and etched on the inside with large sloping words. The letters were accented with tinier, dazzling symbols and the entire gem of a thing might’ve appear like artwork at first, but Arudelle had learned better over the years. He watched the delicate design sharpen where he quarter-turned it, and then traced a finger along the glass.
“Are you blowin’ on it? Making that sound?” Tom came near, wiping his hands of the day’s gutted catch.
Arudelle chuckled, behind his teeth. “No. She does this pretty little song, just for me.”
Beyond the thick, runed glass were several tightly wound papers, and these began to rise as the low whistle swelled. It was almost as dark and breathy as Mi’Raah could sound when she breathed against his neck in the nights. But, Arudelle also now supposed that both lovers should decide what, for a man, may be a sultry voice when the woman means a murderous tone.
Arudelle licked a finger then hurried to fish the letter fully out, and read.
A dogged pout, eyes shut, momentarily. And he had very brown lashes, by the way. Not a natural silver-head at all, the liar.
“Tether up the fleet and send for my officers.”
Where was the joke? Where was the clamorous praise for The Sea and all her free mercy? Arudelle became so quickly dejected and silent in that moment, it was possible to feel–through the space between so many other prone, mortal bodies–that, for the true tone of his woman’s message, he could have easily cried.
Many hours later, the word had been received, and the Black Armada could manage being lashed together, to dwindle aimlessly over floating moonlight.
“Can you believe that is what they are calling us? She writes that King Baeltheon himself has said, ‘the Black Armada.'” Arudelle smiled very hard, and shifted to the next page of letter, “…Which is mightily good. Perfect poison–position–for us.” cleared throat, “The sea-walls are also so many hooves’ thick. Charming, it’s like our cubits, them naming everything for those horses…”
Light laughter from Arudelle’s officers, around the table, who’d worn their best pirate regalia for the occasion. Many of them tried to wrap jeweled fingers round heavy metal goblets from more pilfered kingdoms with names most Sirenians of the New Kingdom could scarcely pronounce.
“…and then she writes that everybody in Jyst is perfectly happy to worship whatever they like. There isn’t a united religion at all. Only the High Priest really cares what people believe or not. Taxes are replaced with tithes, and could be gotten any other way, since that particular custom only goes back a few years and the people resent it… But this is good news. Mi’Raah is excellent at what she does. I am sure she will find some other way to stir them into riot, and dismantle the kingdom. Mortals have been maneuvered around by religion before, haven’t they? Divide and conquer. That is our scheme, and soon, it’s going to be our brand.”
One of Arudelle’s captains flipped up his eye patch. Everyone recoiled momentarily at this Captain Jherpolis, forgetting the actual purpose the enforced costume.
He blinked clear and hale brown eyes. “My King, I wish that you had consulted us. Isn’t it what we’ve been paid for?”
Arudelle went back to being dour and pensive. He folded hands before his mouth. “But you all haven’t been Jystians for years. Didn’t some of you tell me, before we set sail, that the horse religion should have gone secular by now? Some scheme by King Baeltheon’s younger brother to divert attention from the immortal bloodline?”
Minthene had a clipped red beard, and was seated by Jherpolis. “Yes, Prince Bonnis’ idea was to make a yearling, a horse heir, into the next divine avatar, and so pasture the old sire-god Odeon? All of High Priest Odentalis’ paid-politicians would have money from the tithes diverted away from their games and to a new order, therefore, and those stifling strictures would then be ended.”
Jherpolis insisted, “We might still make something of it, Arudelle–”
“No. Between word sailing so slow from Jyst and to our Siren, setting us backward a thousand leagues before we even set off… and then all the culling I did before coming here that they’re still on the verge of learning, if any of my embargo failed… the last thing the Jystians know about is the fall of the Wild Tribes and the banishment I enacted once I returned to the capital–in word and law–against any more Jystian trade in Sirenian ports.”
The other once Jystian seamen nodded, when they certainly remembered, having been hand-picked to profit and support King Arudelle in his efforts to end piracy years ago. Men like Minthene and Jherpolis now had the robust, comfortable air of aristocrats in Arudelle’s presence, which was right, because he’d gifted them land and titles. These were the sort of men who’d learned through struggle that, regardless of a man’s heritage, if he was smart and powerful, then he was priceless. And if Arudelle was also eccentric, having wanted to secretly play at pirates since boyhood, then let him put jewels from lands his own people couldn’t fathom the wealth of, gods-bless-him! Arudelle could put such rings on their fingers and force such goblets into their tired palms to bless their lips at the end of each day, why not? And one only had to spy the woman-treasure he’d pilfered from the depths of his own country–he was going to be king of the world, why not?
Arudelle went on, “I hoped to use the temptation of more Sirenian black-wood, after so long, to buy time to line their waters and wait. Tempting eyesore, you know? All the while, we’d decline talk with any merchants, then King Bonnis’ ships–because Baeltheon should have been deposed according to our spy work, and along with his sheep-head take to enterprise not yet christened into their Known Seas, all that likewise executed… Somebody over there with military ships in need of a beating would eventually engage us with armistice quit and money-bags ready–and then, really, gentlemen, we’d engage them. Take their own vessels and hold the island of Jyst hostage. Perhaps we might have got support, a ransom, or at least a reaction as far out as Fahrwandur, who knows? Then, suddenly, the pompous Known Seas would become properly afraid of Sirenian Pirates, for once.”
They drank, smiled at Arudelle’s budding guile and nodded.
“But, as we journeyed here over months, and Mi’Raah helped move us as fast as she could manage with her tricks and devices, the plot with Prince Bonnis was deconstructed somehow in the meantime. It’s too late to rely on that tack, Mi’Raah has found out. And give her still more credit if you will: Mi’Raah warned me before we set sail from the Siren, that the time of the world is more cyclical, people are more inclined to repeat themselves than make progress at every generation. She also insisted on doing it from the inside, learning their religion by living it, going in and feeling it firsthand. For both, she was right. Damn her, she is so good to me.”
Arudelle sipped more wine, though there were tapped barrels of old Jystian grog everywhere. From back when the Jystians sailed to the Siren saying that they had ‘discovered it’ and called themselves ‘explorers’ and ‘privateers.’ So many cities ravaged along the Sirenian coastline generations later, and little Prince Arudelle was born into a kingdom that could no longer offer a throne to him. And so he had fled south, cut down the beloved Black Trees, made war. Earned respect. Arudelle became a man in the most violent way possible.
The Jystians were willing to yield to the Siren already, Arudelle knew himself and so he knew their fate. It was just that King Baeltheon did not see that yet. Arudelle could only wait and fix his teeth on it, during his worst blank moments away from home and all that he’d risked by daring to come. He wouldn’t call it despair. Well, once, Arudelle confided in Mi’Raah, and she wanted him to call it a ‘vortextual process.’ In that sea-storms whorled around such gaping voids? In that it was a beast’s toothed maw that opened, blank, gaping, deep, black, surrounded by all the raging fury of fur and claws, in order to attack? In that power could erupt from a deep well of pain–that suffering itself was an amazing kind of kindling, as it had been in his own life?
The answer still wasn’t clear. Mi’Raah had been laughing through all his fierce attempt to figure it. Then Arudelle must have slapped her, because he remembered promising over and over, never to hit Mi’Raah again. But couldn’t she just speak straight to him sometimes? Be kind and honest, not cruel, when they were two people sharing a bed?
Arudelle rubbed at his eyes. “Excuse me, but I was having another vortextual process…” brief smile, for her, “Even if religion can be used as a tool, faith is primarily a thing of the human heart. This cannot be counted or measured, blah blah blah… but I still believe we can barter in it. That is where Mi’Raah is wrong and when I learn that the time is ripe, I am going to force this. Gentlemen, my captains…”
“To the Commodore!” they toasted drinks another time.
“Oh? I keep forgetting that, a captain over captains. How good of you, Jystians, to remind me.”
Jherpolis grinned and a large hoop earring dangled over one shoulder, “Soon, we’ll be rich Jystians free of an inane horse god, before. Then, everyone can dance stark nekkid on the beaches, without a care, without any hurt at all. For freedom!”
A resounding, ‘Aye,’ then a long, practiced ‘Arrrrrrr’ when Arudelle lifted finger and solicited it. Finally, they went, ‘Hurrah!’ and had another cask of wine broken out.
“Allies, you humble sons of the bell-feeted women, we will, altogether, have our revenge. Then the pure-breds, that corn-fed, hot-blooded upper class of the Known Sea, will finally be shown the door. How will we get there? We’re going to drink and get fat–though sail on handsomely–until Mi’Raah inspires another coup that all the people of the island can mount their natural cavalry and get behind. A thunder that can fall in, directly behind this man, as with the Wild Tribes. I am your Arudelle. A conqueror in one sea, and a liberator, in another.”
Then, the King of the Siren let his hired men cheer for him. He did not read the final three pages of Mi’Raah’s letter, where she harangued him, and threatened to leave him as soon as a good chance presented itself, and wished that the Sea might rage, swell and crash upon all those black ships, Mi’Raah’s Virtue being the blackest. Every disease and hex upon the fiend’s head, if not for that same damnable bottle, container of her shackles!
And so, Arudelle decided he must send a nice note to her sisters, saying that Mi’Raah was doing well. Therefore, he hoped they were still behaving according to their eldest sister’s instructions. If not, then the enchanted gold bottle, which always found its mark lightning-quick and spoke a true message–would conjure orders for the remaining Naah Maah Raah to be destroyed. Arudelle deeply regretted that he hadn’t a ship made of the same swift, crystalline stuff.
Arudelle hated to think of finishing his meal now, though the cod was well filleted he was still hungry. This had to be just a lover’s spat. Mi’Raah was beautiful and smart-mouthed, smart-made, a compliant, darling doll of a woman–of any sort of woman he’d ever before known, useful, somehow still frightening, but a thrill to keep, perfect…
“Will Queen Euginnia appreciate what you’ve done to the mane she so adores, Arudelle?” wondered others of the turned and fawning Jystian Captains.
Arudelle had to think for another long time, a whole other vortextual process, before he could honestly remember who that was.
1, Mi’raah’s Virtue :: 2, The Dancing Beaches :: 3, On His High Horse :: 4, Off His High Horse :: 5, Bottled Message :: 6, Horse Huntress :: 7, Rider Koriandra :: 8, Oh No He Di’int :: 9, Talking Horses :: 10, That Damned Bottle Again :: 11, Believing is Seeing :: 12, A Choice Between Two Lovers :: 13, Last Vortextual Process :: 14, End of the Prose