Copyright is held by the author.
AT NIGHT, Lord Alabaster of Shreeve would be in the bed chambers of the Queen of Shallow Waters. He plucked at his lute and sang fey songs of sweet embraces tighter than chains, and honey kisses that made all other tastes crumble into ash.
He safely cradled these passionate words from the lips of the King of the Sea, and her eyes drifted shut to dream of storms exciting her river streams. One day, Lord Alabaster promised, the king would arise and finally claim what had been vowed those many years ago.
When the sun crested the waves, Lord Alabaster went to the city beneath the sea. In moonlight’s eye all things were beautiful and mysterious, but in the sun’s inescapable grasp the lord’s songs dulled into common words that deadened rather than inflamed.
He told the king that the queen’s disgust for her husband was as vast as his dominion. That he would have to raise an army of the drowned and force her from her throne before she would let her warm human flesh touch his icy scales.
While the queen sobbed and sighed, betwixt misery and lust, becoming more despondent as her bed remained lonely, the king snarled and raged, wrecking vessels to satisfy his fury at being denied the other half of his soul.
Should the queen send gifts to her beloved, Lord Alabaster would shatter or tear them. Their wrecked remains were used as proof of the queen’s hatred, and that all she would give him was ruination.
Neither knew of the trickery that kept them apart. Only Lord Alabaster’s wife, Glory, saw the truth. When he came home to their castle in the side of the Kruthgar fire mountain, his voice sharpened the sneer upon his face. He cruelly boasted that he kept the sword from its sheath and, when he deemed them fit to be joined, the sheath would be torn to shreds and the sword would shatter.
Glory bowed her head, unable to join in with his laugher. The queen had been her friend, and the king a just ruler.
“Why do you do this?” she once asked him, when she had served him his usual brame-berry spice night cap.
He had drained the cup in one swallow. A smear of purple, like a bruise, dribbled down the corner of his mouth. The answer slurred out, “For fun. For pleasure!”
And that was all. He did not do this because of some perceived slight or command from an enemy ruler. Not even for the promise of the throne. He did it as he had it in his power to do so.
A stranger now slept in Glory’s bed. The boy who had wooed her had abandoned her, and she did not like his replacement.
One evening, when he laughed and promised her that tomorrow would be the long awaited wedding day, Glory could listen no more. She pricked her finger upon a rose in her garden, dripping blood into his drink. The droplets brimmed with bitterness, darkening the liquid into the night sky. Her husband did not notice, only commenting that she should have added more sugar.
In bed, she felt him toss and turn, his legs kicking out at her. He grunted and snarled, shouts choking as he swore at whatever tormented him in his nightmares.
When morning came, he stumbled free of the tangled bedcovers. He cursed her as he rushed about, dragging on his clothes. He was late. The king was an impatient man.
Lord Alabaster hurried across the sands of the Singh-Mar coast. His face was flushed, and he had forgotten to oil his bronze curls, so that wild strands swirled unkemptly. It was not his usual calm, unperturbed facade.
The scaleskin ferryman awaiting him watched curiously as he rushed towards him, shouting for him not to go.
“A late night?” the ferryman asked innocently, and hid his smile when the lord scowled at him.
“My driver’s horse lost a shoe,” the man replied. His lip shuddered as he gritted his teeth, grimacing.
“Nothing. A simple headache.”
As the king slept beneath the ocean, all human men must travel by shell. The ferryman drove a great monster mussel, which was dragged by an army of snorting seahorses the colour of burnt coral.
Lord Alabaster lay within the shell and it closed shut, trapping him in the darkness. The reins were snapped, urging the seahorses deep into the water. They strained against the weight upon their backs, just able to steer the vessel from the endless chasms and stalking sharks. Seaweed clung to the shell, like grasping fingers, and the ferryman slapped them away.
The coral city glowed with a faint pinkish light, from the shimmering pearl baubles plucked from the wombs of oyster queens. Scaleskins furtively swam in and out of the caverns, their lacy gills fluttering. There were no songs or dances, as was the mer-scale way. They were afeared. Water roiled, on the cusp of a storm.
“Where is he?” the king roared. “Damn that human if he has betrayed me!”
In the dark, the lord pulled at his cravat. The king could be as lolling and gentle as sun dappled river streams, or as furious as a whirlpool.
The water seemed to shudder, growing hot and bubbling with fury, as if a great beast thrashed its many limbs in a tantrum.
The ferryman dared not go too near, familiar with the king’s rages and punishments. He loosened the ties around the mussel and gave it a hefty boot. It shot down into the castle, crashing against the anemones that surrounded the fishbone throne.
At the shiver of air, the mussel slowly opened its mouth. The lord slopped out alongside the orange tongue, wiping himself down with a grimace.
“Forgive me, great ruler of the oceans, mighty warrior who keeps the waves from devouring the land,” he crawled, bowing low with each step as he drew closer.
The King of the Sea had brought agony to his mother when he had been born. His scales were not smooth and shimmering like rain droplets, but hooked, like an arc of flying water that had hardened into ice. The long ponytail swirling from his crown was a writhing eel, and its red eye narrowed at the land walker.
“Why does a mere human keep the king waiting?” the eel hissed, and the king eyed Lord Alabaster hungrily. “No more pretty words!”
“It was the queen who detained me. I had been trying to sway her opinion, to soften her cruel heart, but her message to you . . .”
“Yes? What did she say?”
Lord Alabaster spat. The saliva that splattered upon the ground was tinged grey.
“She swore,” Alabaster continued, “that should you ever arise, that was what she would do to your face.”
His throat felt tight and aflame. A clammy sweat welled beneath his cravat. The freezing waters must have weakened his body. He was coming down with something.
The king flung himself from his throne, the eel twisting and snapping. He held aloft his trident.
“Come with me,” the king commanded. “Stand by my side when I claim the kingdom that is rightfully mine!”
Lord Alabaster bowed. “Of course, sire. But, let me go on ahead, I shall tell them that you stride upon the land, and have the joy of watching them tremble.”
The sun buried itself into the land and from its corpse the moon arose. Lord Alabaster rode his horse hard across the dunes, sea spray trailing from his hair.
No matter how his flesh ached and complained, he would see the end of his play. He had spent too many years and words on this. Yet, the wind seemed to tug at him, urging him to return home.
The queen’s domain was amongst the marshes of the fens, made of reeds and rushes. As the night came, her ladies in waiting wandered, their elongated tongues snapping out to catch fireflies and trap them in glass baubles, leaving them to bob in the water and lead the way. Moths tapped against the outer shells, their wings agitatedly flickering in confusion.
Lord Alabaster clumsily hopped from lily pads to half-submerged logs. His foot dipped into the hungry, slimy grasping water and he tore himself free, sans his shoe. He staggered into the marsh castle, trying to wipe the green tinge on his leg with his cravat.
The ladies fluttered about, petting him with their webbed fingers and offering him dainty moss cakes and bubbling sap wine to refresh him. He waved them away. Today, he did not have the strength to force the disgusting treats down.
Lord Alabaster smiled, but the ladies cringed back in disgust. His teeth were completely black. No matter how much he rubbed at them, nothing could get them clean.
He made an excuse that he had eaten a strange dish in the sea city, squid boiled in ink, and that was the cause. Yet, as he spoke, one of his teeth waggled against his tongue. He refrained from smiling again.
The court commented on the change. He was moody and quiet, with short, sharp words rather than endless soliloquies.
The queen lay upon a bed of many pillows, thrashing about anxiously. Her voice quavered as she asked, “Are you well? Did the king do this to you?”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Lord Alabaster managed to pant out, exhausted. “Where you are concerned, the king is as gentle as rainwater kissing the petals of roses. I was attacked and robbed on the way here, and the blaggards stole a gift from the king to you: a stunning pearl the size of your clasped hands.”
“My goodness! I am thankful you are still alive. Did a message come with the gift?”
Black, foul-smelling pus wept from the emerging cracks in his face, splattering and staining his fine clothes. The women held handkerchiefs to their noses, mouths twisting in disgust.
The queen asked behind her own handkerchief, “Lord Alabaster, are you quite well?”
“Of course, my queen, it is only . . . a slight illness. It will . . . pass.”
The lies that had come more easily than breath now dragged, slow and halting. He would not have believed himself.
Pain stretched out further through his body. Its claws dug into his innards, splitting them apart. Blood burst from his veins. He was filling up, drowning from within.
“Well, my dear friend, where is my husband?” the queen asked nervously. “Will tonight be when my dreams are made real?”
Lord Alabaster made to answer. He paused. Something urged him to tell the truth. Oddly, the small voice sounded like his wife. It promised that the pain would vanish should he admit all. He could not. To do so was to invite execution. And, he would never listen to a woman’s advice.
“He comes upon the sunrise,” Lord Alabaster told her, “with love in his heart and passion in his embrace.” When really there was violence pounding in his chest, and a trident clutched in his hand. “When you see him, he will make you his –!”
He covered his mouth, but he was too late. It slopped upon the floor. His tongue lay there, a still, dead slug oozing a dark liquid. His wide, stunned stare slowly looked up at the horrified queen.
He attempted to garble something.
Then, his face split apart. Shards of it splintered to shatter on the ground. He was no longer made of flesh, bone and lies, but delicate china. All that remained amongst the crumpled, ashen mess were his clothes and a single teardrop jewel the colour of blood.
The castle doors were thrust open. Travel weary boots stepped over the remains of Lord Alabaster.
“My queen, you must come with me to the beach. Only you can stop the oncoming war.”
The mer army thundered from the waves. Their tridents glistened with sea foam and seaweed clung to their hair. Across the water they went, heading for shore. The king charged at the front atop the black kelpie Shriek.
A merman pointed ahead, having spotted something on the beach. The white cloak of a ghost could be seen upon the breeze, fluttering and beckoning their gazes.
As they drew nearer, they realised it was a woman dressed in a bridal gown that befitted a mer princess. The fabric had been made of the chalk white seaweed that had been leeched of all colour in the desert plains, and pearls dipped in the arch of a rainbow hung over her face as a veil. Another ghost stood with her, holding onto the trail of the dress.
Soldiers slowed their steads, curious of this strange creature. The king also found himself pulling at the reins of his kelpie. He dismounted, scaled feet crunching upon the gritty sand.
The bride remained still, covered head turned up as if awaiting an answer from him. Although he had a battle roar tangled between his teeth, as well as his trident quivering and throbbing, lusting for blood, he was gentle when he lifted the veil.
The woman had aged from many years of waiting for her husband. Yet, though her hair was white and dreamy eyes glazed from near blindness, he recognised his queen. She smiled, and all thought of war was washed away from his soul. He fell to his knees to grasp her hands and kiss them. She pulled him up so that he may finally claim her lips, and she lay ownership over his body.
“Tonight, two great kingdoms shall be joined,” cried the bridesmaid, who was Glory of Shreeve the widow. “The sword will be placed in its sheath, and never again be drawn for violence!”