One: Into the Darkness
The Peaceful Lady, the ship used to patrol and guard the coast of Beza’s realm, adroitly sailed over the whitecaps, and into the darkness. Headed away from its post, it was destined for a mission unlike any other.
Vohar had warned Beza of leaving the coast unprotected, her council had advised against it, and Zec, her level-headed brother, had rejected her decision, but she ignored all of them.
She had to find her. She had to find Peri.
Heavy clouds loomed over the churning sea, and the wind-whipped rain, unsure of which way to go, scattered across the sky. The gulls were missing from their playground, chased away by the anger that came from an invisible force, who had all command at its fingertips.
Were the Gods and Goddesses trying to tell her something?
If they were, it was too late. Queen Beza couldn’t call the ship back any sooner than she could stop the imminent storm.
The mist soon enveloped the great vessel, making it seem as though it had disappeared altogether.
She turned away from the coast and began her ascent up the steep stone steps that led beach-goers back to the grassy fields, and in turn, the Queen’s city; Sonal.
Trailing close behind were the rest of the royal household who thought to accompany her; her husband, Vohar, her brother, Zec, and his wife, Sasha, and their daughter, three-year-old princess Zeah. The rest of the group, made up of Oathers, lady’s maids, and menservants were there out of duty to their queen.
The wind suddenly lashed out again, making it difficult for Beza to continue her climb up the steps. But, her husband, Vohar, newly minted Lord of Sonal and head of her guard of Oathers, was by her side in a second, blocking the unforgiving weather from forcing Beza’s dress in a direction it did not belong.
“Thank you, my Lord,” Beza said, leaning over and kissing him on his scruffy cheek.
She gazed into his deep blue eyes, taken for a moment by the depths of her admiration for him. It wasn’t enough that he held tall, dark, and handsome in the palm of his hand, but he was the type of person that could only be described as insatiable. She could not ever get enough of him.
Vohar placed his hand on the lower part of her back, and she continued upward.
Another heavy wind spit the ocean’s salty contents onto Beza’s face. She licked her lips, taking in the distinct taste of the ocean, like the aftermath of a seasoned dinner lingering on her mouth.
They reached the top of the stairs, and all the party heaved in and out, except for Zeah, who sat in her father’s arms, with a smile on her tiny face.
“She’s wants you,” Zec said, and Zeah reached her chubby arms towards Beza. She took the child from her brother, and he said, “I look forward to getting out of this rain.”
“You and me both,” Beza replied.
She looked at his face, a mirror of her own, all masculinity for all of her femininity.
“Do you think I’ve made a mistake?” she asked before he could leave her side.
“I think you are making a decision only a queen can make. It is not up to me to say if it is right or wrong. I don’t envy you of the choices you have to make and will never judge you for them.”
Rightful heir to her throne, Zec could have killed Beza and taken the realm as his own, if he so desired. He still could. But something in him was so pure and so humble, that he had no desire for power. An anomaly that she could not quite understand, he had come into her life, and made it better in so many ways.
Sasha called for Zec from the carriage.
“Go,” Beza said, “Zeah can ride home with me.”
He nodded before rushing to his wife’s side.
Beza took Zeah with her and, with Vohar’s help, entered the warm comfort of her royal carriage. Their soaked garments left small puddles on the silken cushions that lined the seats.
“Queeny, can we beath under water?” Zeah said, her face close enough to Beza that she could smell the child’s sweet breath.
“No, tiny princess.”
“I twied to beath in the tubby and it gave me an owie in my nose!” She squished her tiny, button nose with her small finger and went cross-eyed momentarily. Beza laughed, and felt her love strengthen for the innocent child, her heir, who would become Queen one day.
“But is the sea diffent? ‘Cause fishes, and kad-uls, and seaqueenies live in the sea.”
“That is true. There are fishes, and kadruls. I am not so sure about Sea Queens, but if they do exist, they have a special way to breath in the water. They use something called gills.”
“We don’t have gills?”
“No, tiny princess. We don’t.”
“But what if Ciwa falls in? Will she die? She doesn’t have gills!” she said, with exasperation; the kind that only a small child can exude, as if Cira’s death would be the end of this tiny girl’s existence.
After realizing she was more of an asset (to her royal party), than a threat (to her marriage), Beza had hired the beautiful yet mischievous Cira on as a so-called spy. When Cira caught wind of Beza’s secret mission, she was the first to volunteer, insisting that she was the best candidate. Beza could not agree more, and immediately set her to work recruiting the absolute best men to set sail across the seas to find Peri. Although Beza didn’t consider Cira a friend, she did see the value in her role, and hoped little Zeah’s fears were unfounded.
Beza replied, “Cira is a great swimmer. And there are smaller boats on the ship that the crew can board so they can get back to us. But I don’t think she will fall in. So don’t you worry about it for one more minute.”
The unspoken truth was that the Nieh Sea was like a friendly monster. It kept Marmos safe, but anyone that wanted to venture out into it, often did not come back alive. This is why most of the royal ships were never needed, why trade had mostly ceased with the Eastern Islands, and why she felt it was okay to leave the coastline unprotected.
Vohar climbed into the carriage and Zeah immediately climbed into his lap. Knowing he would never have a child of his own, Vohar had quickly bonded with Zeah, and it was a wonder to see how such a man, a soldier, no less, put all of his harshness aside, traded for tender playfulness.
As the carriage pulled away, headed toward home, Zeah and Vohar began a conversation about SeaKingies (Zeah’s word, not Vohar’s). As it so often did, the calming effect of the carriage set Beza’s mind adrift, and she begain thinking of all that had transpired that day.
Early that morning, Beza and Vohar boarded the ship, The Peaceful Lady, as the soft glow of the rising sun took its first peak at the day, only to be masked by charcoal clouds that wanted all the attention.
They watched as a flurry of servants rushed up and down the ramp, bringing food and supplies on board to last two years. Amidst the bustle, Cira had called the men on board to attention, and lectured them not unlike a strict schoolteacher.
Cira, who could be mistaken for a man -in action only- was petite, and thin, and her olive-skinned face framed delicate features that belonged to the models who posed for artists. However, her beauty was simply a side-note to her boldness. That was why Beza had chosen to send Cira as their guide. Her bravery was something a lion might be envious of and, in addition, Cira knew how to travel undetected, like a speck of dust in a snowstorm.
Beza had been quite jealous of the woman at first. She had suspected something had gone on between Cira and Vohar, though Vohar swore to her that he never felt anything for the woman. After their marriage, and after Cira helped Vohar save Beza from a defeat by Blentif, she allowed her boiling jealousy to simmer, and then cool down altogether. Since then, Cira had become one of Beza’s greatest resources.
As Beza stood on the bough of the ship, she explained in detail the mission that this crew had been summoned for.
“You are looking for someone. Someone from my past who now lives at sea.”
“More like in the sea,” Vohar had whispered in her ear.
“Last I knew her, she was a small girl, only this high,” Beza had said, holding her hand mid-waist. Long, dark hair, a dimple in her right cheek, and light green eyes. She will be as different from the image I describe to you now as the sky is from the sand. She is no longer a girl…” she paused, tentatively, knowing her words sounded unbelievable even before she spoke them. “In fact, she is no longer a human.”
The men looked at her intently, and several let out gasps.
Beza continued, “I believe she now lives as a kadrul.”
The blank stares were almost comical. As far as this crew knew, kadruls, great serpents of the sea, only existed in myths. And kadruls that used to live as humans? Well, that was just absurd. None of these men were around when she had watched a kadrul make its way onto the beaches of Cordania to deliver a message of hope to Beza. And none of these men were around when she had so distinctly connected the dots in her mind that this creature was, in fact, her long-lost friend. Only the simmering power of an immortal queen could have allowed her to understand such details.
Beza continued, “She was pregnant last I saw her so she may very well have young with her. If you find her, you must take great care not to harm her or any she might be with. This is of the utmost importance. I will not hesitate to take the harshest of actions against any who disobeys this order.”
She had gone on for several more minutes, and though the men acted a bit shocked, they seemed all the more ready to take on this mission knowing that it was quite mysterious and most likely impossible.
Once Beza had finished, Cira took over.
“I want to know!” Cira had shouted at the crew, who stared straight ahead as if looking at nothing. Their faces, that had just moments before been lit up with excitement while listening to their queen, were suddenly stone, and Beza imagined they had already learned the art of calm pretention while their higher up spit orders at them.
Beza and Vohar side-eyed each other, and she saw the smile hidden underneath Vohar’s ‘calm pretention.’
Cira continued her rant, pacing up and down the deck, her boots smacking down in purposeful addition to her speech.
“I want to know if you see a bird fly overhead. I want to know if you see a fish swim by our ship. I want to know if you piss differently than you did yesterday. If there is anything that happens, I want to know! That is the only way we are going to piece this puzzle together for the Queen.”
She paused, eyeing each of the twenty men.
She picked up her pace again, and said, “We have stores enough to spend two years on this voyage, and if that is how long it takes, I will use your mashed-up bodies to feed the sharks on my way home. The Queen wants answers and she wants them now. We will not make her wait. We will find the kadrul she speaks of and return home in good time.”
She stopped in front of a young soldier, with a narrow chin and lanky limbs to match. She barely reached his chest, but she grabbed his outer jacket and pulled him down to her eye level.
“Do I make myself clear?”
“Yes, ma’am,” the soldier replied, his jaw tight, his hands locked at his side.
“With that said, I’ll take my leave,” Beza interjected. She appreciated Cira’s tactics but could not stomach them for long periods of time.
“Of course, my Queen.” Cira bowed, along with the other soldiers on board the royal ship.
Hours later, the ship sailed into the unknown, looking for someone that Beza wasn’t even sure was still alive.
Soft crackling, steady pops; the noises from the fire were a backdrop to their evening. Vohar and Beza sat comfortably on the settee in Beza’s chambers, her feet propped up on his lap, his head resting on her chest.
Out of nowhere, Vohar broke into song. This was one of those quirks that she discovered only after they had been married.
He loved to sing.
But he had a terrible voice.
“Beauty untoooold, words are no maaaatch.” He attempted to serenade her, making up words to a song that had just been crafted in his head. These were his favorite types, of course.
She couldn’t help but laugh at his off-key voice, deep and unharmonious yet still had the romantic qualities to make her heart skip a beat.
He nuzzled into her neck, kissing her while tickling her at the same time, throwing more words together unceremoniously like a stew made from leftover food that managed to still taste delicious in the end.
He was the spark to her dampened thoughts. He could always manage to cheer her up, to bring her out of her darkest moods. But in this moment, even his light-hearted nature could not dismiss her thought. She could not put away the fear that permeated her mind day in and day out, as of late.
“Do you ever worry that your whole life has been for nothing?” Beza asked, letting the heavy words dance unevenly in the air, wondering if she should have said them in the first place.
Vohar furrowed his brow and was silent for a moment. Finally, he said, “That seems a bit much, but yes, I would say I’ve thought that a time or two. Especially after Cordania last year.”
It always pained her to think of their trip to Cordania. He had professed his love to her, and she had turned him away, for reasons she now looked upon as silly and pretentious. His face and words were etched into her memory, like a freshly sliced cut. “The Immortal Queen is free to choose whom she wishes. Would you not choose me?” She had told him no, she would not and could not. Though she had wanted more than anything to marry him at that moment.
“If it helps, the guilt from that choice still eats me alive.”
“No. Nope. That does not help. That was a decision you had to make. I understand that now. And I still managed to win your hand, so we can forget about that and try to remember all of the new memories that have been stamped into that place.”
Only a short time ago, she and Vohar had visited Cordania for their honeymoon. Though they still had the accompaniment of Beza’s entire retinue, they found plenty of moments to be alone, and in those small breaths of time, they had grown closer in a way she never imagined possible. They had become like two sprigs of ivy, grown from separate locations, but intertwined in such a way that they could never be pulled apart.
“You have me worried. What is going on?”
Her visions had been getting darker and darker lately and she wasn’t sure why. She had experienced dark visions brought on by dark times, like after her father died, and then again when she thought her mother died. But she wasn’t in dark times. Her life was finally sailing along in an orderly fashion, and she found great joy in every aspect of it.
She laid her head on his broad shoulder and breathed in and out. “Well, I suppose I must tell you.” She paused, trying to gather her thoughts in a precise order.
“My visions have been pulling me down into a place that seems unbearable to handle. At times, it feels as though I am caught in a nightmare that has no way out. In the past, dark visions have been brought about by parallel times, but I would venture to say I am the happiest I’ve ever been. It is all so confusing to me and it makes me wonder if the Gods and Goddesses are trying to tell me something.”
“Well, I’m glad to know you are the happiest you’ve ever been. You have just married the man of your dreams, after all,” he spoke sarcastically, but truthfully, and she laughed.
“I have not been made privy to details of your visions before,” he said, tentatively. “Could you describe one to me? Or is that too…what’s the word…secret?” He seemed unsure of his choice.
“No secrets,” she quickly replied. “Remember?”
“Of course. Maybe a better word is…sacred?”
“I understand what you’re getting at….”
He added, “They are sent from the Gods and Goddesses, so I can imagine they don’t want you shouting them to the world.”
“Of course not,” she said. “But I feel like this is something I can share with you. My husband. My Oather,” she said, and he leaned over and kissed her.
“I think that’s only fair,” he replied, with a half-smile.
She kissed him on his stubbly cheek, and then stood to retrieve her journal.
She ran her hands along the steady stream of journals, until she reached the last one. The new one. She touched it momentarily.
She told Ilo that morning that she needed to get her a new journal. She went through them so often that Ilo had become wise and made several in advance. Her new one sat there before her, under the gentle touch of her hand, waiting to be written in, the scrawls and scribbles of Beza’s future visions yet to be documented. Like a princess that had yet to take on the crown, it was fresh and beautiful, unchanged, and unblemished from the weight of ruling an entire realm.
Then she moved her hand to her previous journal and pulled it off the shelf.
“Sometimes it’s easier to let the writing do the talking. Here,” she said and placed the leather-bound record in Vohar’s hands. She had never entrusted anyone with this before.
“It is the last page that will explain. But you are free to read any of it at any time. No secrets,” she mused again, not only reminding herself, but reinforcing the idea for Vohar.
“No secrets,” he repeated, quietly, then turned his attention to the book in his hands, that he held with such care that she had to fight the emotions down. She imagined that he instead was holding their first child.
A gift that would never be given to her.
Unexpectedly, she felt tears filling her eyes, but she stopped them before he could notice. It still hurt to think she would never have her own child. Vohar’s child. Even after all these years, even though she had an heir, there was a part of her that burned…that stung as though a hot knife was always pressed to her heart.
She pretended to busy her hands to deflect the emotion, then when she had composed herself, she sat next to him. He gently flipped through some of the pages, reading her words silently to himself. She read along with him and realized the power of this moment. She was sharing something with him that she had never shared with anyone else in her life.
When he reached the last page, he asked, “Do you mind if I read it aloud?”
She gestured to him that he could go on.
She was already aware of his deep, soothing voice, but he read with such ease and yet such passion, that it felt like he was reading from one of the books off the shelves of the library. The ebb and flow of his tone shifted accordingly, and for a moment, she forgot that he was voicing aloud one of her scariest visions yet.
I drift away into a world of blackness. I can’t see my hands in front of my face, but I can hear shrieks close by. I have heard that type of anguish only once before…in Duraka.
I reach out to try and orient myself to my surroundings, still not able to see anything. I feel what I think is a table with two items atop. A book and a candle. I grab the candle and turn around.
Far off in the distance, I see a glow of embers.
I make my way over, slowly, as I am still unaware of my surroundings.
I cannot feel the heat, nor can I smell the familiar smoky scent but it is clearly burning
I hold my candle to the flames, and the wax immediately begins to drip down. The wick is long and the fire dances onto it, but never catches hold.
I spend many minutes here, trying to light the candle, but find no success. I cannot see a thing, but for the fire, my hands, and the candle that will not be made into what it is intended for. The screams still punch through the air, and I feel tremendous fear.
I begin to weep, to sob, the terror gripping me and squeezing me so tightly that I can’t find breath. Tears stream down my face, and my fingers tremble so much so that the candle is dropped.
I wrap my arms around my body and close my eyes. Then, an unfamiliar voice, a woman’s voice:
“Here be the forsaken queen.”
Vohar looked up at Beza and her breath came short. Not as it normally did when he looked at her and brought about feelings of love and tenderness, but the words that he had just uttered brought about a deep-seeded fear from a place she thought was gone. She felt that all her problems were resolved. She felt the people should be happy and content with the way her rule was going.
“Why, Vohar?” She said, breaking the silence. “What will bring about my forsaking?
Vohar’s brow came together, and he grabbed her hands in his.
“Nothing,” he said, gently, quietly, as if that would help the damning nature of the vision. “You will not be forsaken by me or anyone.”
But she could tell his words were only spoken to comfort, only let out into the air simply for something to say, rather than to speak the truth. One thing they both knew for sure:
Her visions did not lie.