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The King Under The Water
Those who returned were often confused, feverish, full of dreams.
You can divide the underwater people in an infinity of ways. There are those by the surface, who can hold their breath above water, and those of the deep, who do not bear any resemblance to humans. There are those of salt water and those of fresh. I myself find the cultural differences more interesting than the biological. One divide can be seen the world over: the merpeople of the great imperial oceans are warlike and fierce. Though they themselves see great differences from ocean to ocean ("The Atlanteans are barbaric"), there is really very little difference between them. The water mixes so much that it's always cousins fighting cousins.
More variety can be found outside the oceans. Due to isolation, great differences in culture can be found. The Great Lakes, in the center of our continent, are the largest example of, by all accounts, a quite peaceable kingdom. Their language is utterly foreign to that of, say, Lake Winnipeg. Many of these small kingdoms, though they do not partake of trade, are not as actively hostile to humans as the great oceans.
Long ago all underwater people were united by a deepwater king. He was known across the seas for both his ferocity and his virtue. For ten years after the uniting of the kingdoms under his banner, there was a time of plenty and innovation. Nations that had exhausted themselves in the wars prior were able to recuperate and all shared in the bounty of invention. Great underwater machines were purposed and communication between oceans was near-instant.
The manner of his passing is unclear to me, indeed, it was probably deliberately obfuscated, much like the matter of his son. What is known is that it was sudden and surrounded by rumor. His son, whose birth was secret and who may not have even been known to the lesser nobles of the time, ascended.
The rule of the son was more indirect than his father's. Where the father proclaimed, the son whispered. While the father held court at the pit of the Pacific, the location of the son's court was unknown. Some said it was at the north pole of the planet. Others said the south. A minority opinion among modern scholars is that the son had private technology or magic used to transport himself faster than our physics describe as possible, through a darkness deeper than the void between stars. While the father wore the bone crown of his ancestors, the son had his crown cut out of a meteorite that fell into his kingdom.
All the same, progress continued. In our national museum we have diagrams of the weapons they were building at the time.
On the tenth anniversary of the son's rule, his emissaries landed on the beaches of all the great kingdoms. The son desired a bride of human flesh.
Kings and merchants and peasants sent their daughters. They lined up for days in the sand and algae and cold winter surf. The son's armies took them down, one by one. They returned, but gradually, not as quickly as they had left, and not in their original order. Those who returned were often confused, feverish, full of dreams. They could only say that they were forbidden to speak of what they had seen. It was unclear if all of them had met the king or none of them.
The fathers and brothers did not slow sending their daughters and nieces and wards, so great was their greed. By lining upon the sand, they were able to converse with the merpeople, and indeed, trades and alliances were drafted. My great-great-grandfather, or perhaps his father, is known to have made a deal for potions and balms on this very beach. The potential profits were quite great and the risk of getting to the front of a line quite small, for indeed, they would wind the entire length of a kingdom. And consider: the conditions of the girls who came back were not horrific. They were not clearly unhappy. And consider: The dream of being the father of the queen.
This went on for a full winter. Fewer and fewer girls came back. Don't let me mislead you: They were still all coming back, eventually. If I had to guess, on a single beach, a hundred descended into the depths a day and fifty came back, these fifty having descended perhaps a month ago.
It did seem that kingdoms would run out of women to send. Our own king asked the emissary what sort of bride the king under the water desired. The emissary declined to explain. Rumors spread that the king under the water was a great serpent. Indeed, this would explain many things: His court was at both poles because he himself wrapped around the earth.
As spring arrived, the women began to forget things. What they had been doing that day. The order of their ancestors. What the moon is made of. And soon nobody could deny it. Soon it became clear that they were afraid of water.
A tremendous outcry spread. There wasn't a family that hadn't sent a woman. Those still in line were retrieved by their brothers and sons and husbands. Kings met with the emissaries to banish them from their beaches. Within a week, the kingdoms above water and the kingdom below had severed all ties.
The anger did not abate, for it was largely men's anger at themselves, which is the worst sort of anger. It had an outlet in the anonymous black water that surrounds all kingdoms. Raiding parties were formed. For what? For raiding. Once the idea was suggested, it took on flesh and did not need justification, for ideas are more powerful than the men they puppeteer.
The accounts I have read of the wars that followed are the least reliable and most contradictory. Some state that humans possessed incredible military superiority and gained dominion over vast swathes of the sea. Others, that due to the unfamiliar territory in which they fought, humans were usually defeated and taken as slaves (or ransomed).
Two incompossible events conclude this saga, each of which is placed at ten years after the war's beginning. Each is possible on its own merits and the historical tradition is to recount them independently. I will abide.
Firstly, it is known that the king under the water took a bride and that this concluded the war. She was not among the thousands of women still being returned or rescued. She was from a landlocked kingdom and she had joined him of her own accord, walking in through stairs that descend into the bowels of the earth.
Secondly, it is known that an army reached his palace and slew him, concluding the war.
How are we to reconcile these? There are many possibilities. A recent theory is that he did take a bride and returned with her under the earth while his palace was ransacked and profaned.
Consider: there is no bodily confirmation. While in our museums we have embalmed merpeople, copies of their weapons, photographs from that time, and indeed, a great translucent skin befitting a king, his crown is missing. If he were killed by the army, then surely his crown would have returned with the invaders. Secondly, there are theories that the underwater people had much civilian wizardry they had hidden for such an event. Consider: While we live above ocean and earth, and live in air, they are parallel with the earth on which we walk and are used to the extreme pressures and heat of the ocean floor. Could it not be that the king used his powers to escape into the molten rock, great wyrm that he is?
However, most adherents of this theory also believe that the son and the bride do not reside within the earth but within the moon, which almost totally discredits the main theory by association.
One impossible explanation that nonetheless has not been quashed: That the bride did beseech him to shed each skin of his, until what remained was a man, no serpent at all. That he lived under a great sea-witch curse and all his brides-to-be were placed under its sign when they laid their hands upon him. When he emerged from his last serpentine form it was like waking from a dream, while his bride hurried him up the molten stairs to her kingdom of earth and air. It is possible he walks among us now, a king in exile, his bride the only party to his secret.
- Notes from a scroll, copied onto paper, originals stolen.