Nalil 19, 5681---Prince. The title set him above almost everyone in the world, but it also left him with a sense of boyhood when he was old enough to be the Great King. The old man was sickly and sometimes unfit to rule, so Prince Nomolo performed the duties of the Great King despite his position as Prince. As he sat on the throne in the palace at Atalan, gazing over the strange characters standing before him, he wondered if they thought less of him because he was not yet king.
“You know my demands,” the tall woman stated caustically at Prince Nomolo’s hesitance. “What is your response?”
The Prince knew little about the woman, but fables of her exploits filled the seas. He guessed her age was somewhere in the forties or fifties, although that was as difficult to determine as the rest of her persona. Her blond hair accented her sharp features, and a lifetime aboard a ship left her somewhat rugged. She was Ivee’Lyn, a pirate who called herself Queen of the Sea. Although Prince Nomolo didn’t think of her as having queenly qualities, the title certainly fit. She’d been commanding ships her entire life, and was very adept at diplomacy. “You request the full support of Atalan in your attempt to conquer Irata,” Prince Nomolo frowned. “That is hardly a demand, but rather a wish bordering on lunacy. Atalan cannot support piracy or those associated with piracy, no matter how innocent they may be.”
Ivee’Lyn chuckled. “I am hardly a pirate. Have you not heard the tales? I attack pirates, and refuse to disrupt legal merchant shipping. Such is the basis of my reputation”
Prince Nomolo leaned forward and raised his eyebrows. “And the song? Is there not a line about finding merchants to cleave or thieve, depending on the variation?”
“One can hardly consider a song to be true,” the woman replied. “Besides, the variations mentioned by Josloy are not the only two to consider. There is another about merchants to receive. Search the seas, and you’ll find quite a few merchants I’ve received aboard my ships to conduct honest business.”
Josloy, the renowned explorer of Etnyben, hadn’t been gone three months before she sailed a large fleet into the Bay of Anamnesis. She was counting that her arrival shortly after Josloy returned to Atalan would demonstrate the sincerity of the report she had the explorer add to his journal. Now that Josloy was sailing home to Bagda, he was unavailable if anyone wished to question his account of this woman.
One of the royal advisors bent down, and whispered in the Prince’s ear that she spoke the truth. This complicated matters. Prince Nomolo still lacked a legal basis to refuse Ivee’Lyn’s request. He could refuse on the basis that she was a pirate, but that would not solve the problem. The size of her fleet posed a significant threat to the royal navy, so sending her away could be disastrous. The best he could expect was a trade of sorts.
Prince Nomolo straightened on the throne to reply, but she spoke again before he could start. “My request is more than personal,” she added. “You are at war with Irata whether you admit it or not. Eranithon is no more, and other lands suffer under the tyranny of Irata. Supporting my assault on Irata will avenge the ruin of Eranithon, and liberate many other lands from the control of Irata.”
Prince Nomolo frowned. Irata always was a problem for the Great Kings. Although few people ever heard of the place, the Overlord residing in Irata controlled almost all the commerce across the seas by controlling piracy around the world. Pirate vessels each had their homeport, but were required to present a tribute to the Overlord at Irata at regular intervals. Everyone serving aboard a ship under the Overlord’s control was a pirate, regardless of his or her means, honest or not, of obtaining the tribute. Some Great Kings ignored the Overlord, while others sought to overthrow and replace the Overlord. There were also rumors, however true or not, that Irata itself was under the control of a dark force, perhaps even the Dark Lunari. Success against the Overlord was rare, with every successful attempt Prince Nomolo ever heard about involving an alliance of sorts with pirates.
“The support of Atalan is not free,” he said. “Suppose I were to support your assault and oversee your instatement as Overlord. What then? Do I leave Irata with a new ruler, or may I expect something in return?
Ivee’Lyn stared silently at the Prince long enough to make him uneasy before she replied. “I believe you know what land displays a bat on their banner,” she finally said.
A brief hint of surprise crossed the Prince’s face at the mention, but he quickly regained his composure, and hoped she hadn’t noticed. “I am unaware of any such emblem,” he quickly replied.
“You and I know more about what Josloy saw in Etnyben than is written in his journals,” she said coldly. “Do not pretend otherwise. The Underground is an empire to rival the world, not just another kingdom. They are a threat to Irata, and yes, they are a threat to you.”
“They are a threat to Atalan only by their allegiance to the Dark Lunari,” Prince Nomolo asserted. “Am I to understand you are amending your request to add the support of Atalan in an attempt to raise you to power over the Underground?”
A look of fury briefly crossed Ivee’Lyn’s face before she smiled to ease the tension. “Prince Nomolo, you are young and dogmatic in your ways.” The Prince inwardly cringed at the mention of his youth. “The leisures of Atalan left you no chance to dirty yourself with reality.”
“I am unsure if you meant that as an insult or a compliment,” Prince Nomolo said slowly.
“Interpret it how you will,” Ivee’Lyn replied. “I came before you of my own will. My fleet is formidable, but it cannot survive the royal navy should you command its destruction. I know the reality of my situation, but I do not come before you empty-handed. I visited my grandfather’s homeland. I saw the desolation left by the Overlord. The once fertile Eranithon is now a barren, rocky wasteland. Nothing grows, and even the seabirds avoid nesting on the coast. The land died at the whim of Irata, but by a means beyond even the vilest Overlord.”
“Then you’re appealing with the belief that mention of the Dark Lunari will sway my decision?” Prince Nomolo asked.
“The surface of Eranithon is barren, which is far beyond any human power” the woman reaffirmed. “I doubt even those witches from the Sisterhood of Jadela’Mar are capable of such a feat.”
“I hesitate to consider any action based on accusations of Dark Lunari involvement,” Prince Nomolo said. “I’m sure you understand. I hear folks blame the Dark Lunari for almost every bad circumstance. If I were to involve myself with everyone who blamed the Dark Lunari, Atalan would have no time for the real threats we face.”
Ivee’Lyn reached beneath her cloak and pulled out a folded piece of dirty, wrinkled parchment. “The surface of Eranithon is barren,” she said, “but there are caves. One of my crews explored a cave, and the lone survivor emerged with this.” She tossed the parchment on the floor in front of the Prince.
One of the royal advisors picked up the parchment, and handed it to the Prince. He unfolded the parchment to see a triangle of three symbols. The flying horse of Eranithon and the bat representing the underground empire of the Dark Lunari formed the base. The peak of the triangle was the ship signifying Irata. “Did the survivor give any explanation?” he asked.
“Unfortunately, that man experienced such a fright he couldn’t speak. He shook with fear, and refused to eat or sleep until he died of exhaustion.”
Prince Nomolo leaned back in the throne, and examined the three symbols on the parchment. “It seems this is the most compelling evidence you’ve given me,” he said. “I understand the Overlord who ruined Eranithon did not live long after that, but any alliance between the two powers would outlast the usual transition between leaders. It also suggests someone survived the destruction.” He frowned at the three symbols. They were crude markings, more dirt than paint, but the symbolism was unmistakable. The Queen of the Sea had him. There was no ignoring Irata now.
“I wouldn’t call them survivors,” Ivee’Lyn said gravely. The statement had the immediate attention of everyone in the room. Whispered conversations among others in the throne room ceased. Someone at the doorway to a hallway dropped a pitcher of wine to shatter and splash on the floor. Several people gasped at the revelation.
Prince Nomolo immediately stood up. “This room is sealed,” he announced loudly, glancing around at everyone. “Let no one come or go without excuse for the duration of this discussion. Let no one speak a word of this issue beyond this room without permission. Anyone found in violation of my order will be imprisoned in the deepest dungeon or worse.” He saw the looks on faces change as people began to understand the ramifications of the command. There would be no more refreshments or other amenities until the discussion at hand was over. It was very rare that any Great King issued such an order, and Prince Nomolo hoped the discussion would be resolved quickly. However, he’d heard of times when sealed discussions lasted far longer than was feasibly comfortable. He turned back to Ivee’Lyn, and sat back down on the throne. “You found survivors?”
“I wouldn’t call them survivors,” Ivee’Lyn said again. “They live like animals. When one rum-sogged crew seeking a merry adventure failed to return, three crews’ worth of my most battle-hardened soldiers would not. After I took that parchment from my frightened crewman, I went in force to investigate the loss of the others. The people in those caves live in utter darkness. They shun even the dimmest light. They have no homes. They wear no clothing. I cannot imagine what they eat. They speak, but I doubt their intelligence surpasses that of common beasts. They stalked us like wolves in the night, crawling on all fours. They attacked in the shadows, shrieking, clawing, and biting like ravenous beasts, but fled the light of our torches. Eranithon might be their origin, but they are not survivors. There is no saving those people from their condition.”
“Surely you cannot know that unless you try,” Prince Nomolo said. “Even if...”
“I have a captive,” Ivee’Lyn interrupted loudly, an impropriety that left several in the room surprised. “I can bring her for you to see her poor state for yourself. She is in the quarters you provided upon my arrival.”
“Have her brought before us,” Prince Nomolo ordered. “Send as many of your entourage as necessary. Ensure that no one in the streets learns of her.”
Ivee’Lyn nodded, and signaled to several people standing behind her. She turned back to the Prince as the men left the throne room. “No one will know of her,” she assured the Prince. “The woman cannot tolerate the light, so I keep her heavily covered. It might not be optimal, but I’d say it’s better than where I found her”
“And how did you catch her?” Prince Nomolo wondered.
“I pulled her from a crevice where she was cowering from my torchlight,” Ivee’Lyn answered. “All the others we encountered attacked; she hid.”
Prince Nomolo glanced back down at the parchment he was still holding. “Did you ask her about these symbols?”
“You can’t ask the blind to see,” Ivee’Lyn snorted. “She’s lived her life in complete darkness. If I asked her to explain those symbols, she’d ask me what a horse is, what a bat is, what a ship is. She has no concept of things too big for her to visualize with her hands.”
The door to the throne room opened, and everyone’s head turned to see the mysterious captive enter. Their curiosity was thwarted, however, because the men carried between them what appeared to be a long box on poles, with a heavy blanket draped over it. They set down their load on a table toward one side of the dais.
“What is beneath that blanket?” one of the palace guards demanded. He reached to lift the corner, but Ivee’Lyn swatted his hand.
“It is too bright in here,” she said sternly. “Remove that blanket, and the woman will scream in pain from the light, even with her blindfold on. You might consider finding a darker room to examine her.”
Prince Nomolo set the parchment beside the throne, and stood up. “Close the curtains. Dim the braziers. Leave the candles. We’ll have it dark, but not dark enough for any pirate treachery.”
“Have no fear of that,” Ivee’Lyn said softly while others in the room carried out the Prince’s orders. “The throne I seek is at Irata, not Atalan.”
When the room was sufficiently dark, Ivee’Lyn grabbed a corner of the blanket, and pulled it off to reveal a woman strapped to a board. A framework to keep the blanket from draping directly over the woman was what created the box shape. Her skin was paler than Prince Nomolo ever thought possible. Her white hair seemed thin and scraggly. A thick, black blindfold covered her eyes, and a ragged dress covered her body. For a moment, nothing happened. Then the woman began to moan softly, as if in agony, and writhed slowly against her restraints.
“Behold, the fate of Eranithon,” Ivee’Lyn said. “Even as dim as it is in this room, the light still pains her.”
Prince Nomolo walked over to the woman. “What is your name?” he asked. She did not answer, seemingly oblivious to his presence, but she did stop moving. He leaned in closer. “What is your name?” he demanded. Once again, there was no response. He held his hand a short distance over her face. She lifted her head and sniffed.
“Be careful,” Ivee’Lyn warned. “She has no issue with biting the hand that feeds her.”
“They eat other people?” Prince Nomolo asked, pulling back his hand.
The face slowly turned toward Prince Nomolo. “I eat what I catch,” she said with a soft, raspy voice. “No people.”
“What do you catch?” Prince Nomolo asked.
“They are slow,” she answered cryptically.
Prince Nomolo glanced around the room at the crowd standing around the table. The woman was a spectacle to most of them. She would be the gossip of Atalan before the end of the week, despite his restriction against mentioning her outside the throne room. “Everyone out,” he ordered. “Everyone, that is, except the palace guard.”
“I won’t leave you alone with my captive,” Ivee’Lyn growled, trying to grab Prince Nomolo by the front of his coat before two guards pulled her away. The Queen of the Sea’s entourage reached for their swords, but paused as Prince Nomolo held up his hand.
“A decision has been made concerning the Queen of the Sea’s request for the support of Atalan in her assault on Irata,” Prince Nomolo announced. “Atalan will support the instatement of a new Overlord at Irata, and in return expects cooperation on two matters. First, the Queen of the Sea will coordinate ships within her control following her instatement as Overlord to search the seas surrounding and the waters within Etnyben for any openings to the Underground, and to destroy or request assistance in the destruction of those openings. Second, there is to be no talk of survivors from Eranithon, nor is the land to be a place of adventure for any ship that docks on those forsaken shores. Furthermore, I hereby confiscate this person held captive by the Queen of the Sea.” He paused. Ivee’Lyn was glaring at him, but she held her tongue. “Now,” he continued, “if those conditions are acceptable, you’ll hear again from me at a later time. If not, well, either way, there’s the door.”
The Queen of the Sea frowned at Prince Nomolo for several seconds before turning with a huff and walking proudly to the door. Her entourage followed behind her, although not as hastily. The woman strapped to the board turned her head away from the open door. Others in the room left soon after.
It was several minutes before only Prince Nomolo and two guards remained with the captive woman in the throne room. He turned back to the woman after the door closed. “What is your name?”
“Name?” she replied.
“If I want to talk to you, what do I call you?”
“That’s not what I meant,” Prince Nomolo clarified. “What did others call you back where you came from?”
She turned her head back toward Prince Nomolo. “Sushala’Mol,” she answered slowly. “I was Sushala’Mol.”
“You are still Sushala’Mol,” Prince Nomolo told her. “Do you know who I am?”
She slowly shook her head.
“I am Prince Nomolo, son of the Great King Derkias, heir to the throne in Atalan.”
“You have a long name,” she decided.
Prince Nomolo laughed, realizing she might not understand titles or positions of power. “My name is Nomolo,” he explained. “Everything else explains who Nomolo is.”
“Nomolo,” she repeated. He guessed by her facial expressions that she was considering the titles he listed. She finally spoke again. “I am Captive Sushala’Mol, daughter of Long Breath Daginoth, catcher of slow in the Great Dark.”
“What is the Great Dark?” Prince Nomolo asked. “Is that where you come from?”
“No,” she answered, seemingly annoyed at his lack of knowledge on the subject. “Catch slow in the Great Dark. Take long breath. Go down. Catch slow. Eat.”
Prince Nomolo realized she considered slow to be more than just a rate of movement. “What does slow look like?”
She made a wiggling movement with her hand, but couldn’t do much because of her bonds. “I... I do not know how to show you,” she finally decided.”
“If you had my hand, could you show me?” Prince Nomolo asked.
“I could try,” she answered.
He reached to touch her hand, but she somehow twisted her wrist and grabbed it first, surprising him. She slowly straightened his hand, and began to feel it. “Top of slow, but not sharp enough,” she said, rubbing over the ends of his fingertips. She shifted her fingers to his palm, and then to the back of his hand. “Side of slow, but not smooth or rough enough.” Her hand moved around his wrist, and curled around his thumb. “End of slow, but not thin enough.”
Prince Nomolo felt confused. “So it’s sharp on top, smooth and rough on the sides, and long and thin on the back. You just described any number of things. You’re going to have to learn to see things the same way everyone else sees things.” He reached for her blindfold.
“No,” she begged, almost crying. “No more light!”
Prince Nomolo paused. “Are you afraid of light?” She slowly relaxed, then lifted her chin, and licked Prince Nomolo’s wrist. He quickly lifted his hand away from her blindfold. “I take it you do best without light.”
She strained against her bonds to face him. “To know light is your curse from birth, my curse on my day of captivity. We are both cursed to know light.”
Prince Nomolo grabbed the woman’s head by the hair. He knew it was painful for her, but it was the only way to do what he wanted to do. “I will see your eyes,” he whispered, quickly pulling back the blindfold.
For the briefest moment before she could react, Prince Nomolo saw her piercing white eyes devoid of any color. He let go as she shrieked and jerked away.
Eyes wide, Prince Nomolo backed away from the table. “Put the blindfold back on,” he ordered the guards. “Quick.” They moved to carry out the order. The screams soon faded to sobbing. “Cover her, and take her to the darkest room in the palace. Give her food and water, and remove her bonds. Let no one learn of her presence or enter the room without my knowledge.”
“Will she try to escape?” one of the guards asked.
“Not if she has to pass through light,” Prince Nomolo replied. “I will decide what to do about her later.”
He sat on the throne to think while the guards carried Sushala’Mol from the room. The blanket now covered her, but the soft crying beneath it would certainly draw attention. Rumor would spread that the Queen of the Sea brought a strange woman to Prince Nomolo, and everyone would speculate about the situation.
He picked up the parchment, and examined the crude symbols. Irata, Eranithon, and the hidden underground empire few believed existed seemed to upset his reign, and he wasn’t even king yet. What bothered him was the woman he just saw was too unaccustomed to seeing to be able to draw such recognizable images. If everyone living in the caves suffered the same problem, who left the parchment? There had to be something else in the cave, something other than cave dwellers living like animals, and there was only one way he could learn the truth of the matter. He was going to Eranithon.
After contemplating the issue for quite some time, he stood up, tucked the parchment beneath his cloak, and left the dark throne room. There was only one person left to consult, his father.