My whole body was throbbing, and I wondered if I had broken anything. Terrible does not even begin to describe the pain I felt—or the fear that gripped my gut. I probably looked like something that had washed up in the tide, but I was alive … for the moment. I looked at my body. My fins had been lacerated, but the saltwater had cleansed the wounds. Scrapes and bruises covered my arms and torso, but I could feel no cuts or scraps on my face or scalp. My gills ached, but they would soon recover, though breathing was a bit painful. I knew that I would have to find some location where I could change … and heal, but the wave that pushed me across the Indian Ocean had left me disoriented. I was out of my own kingdom of Deep Waters, but where I was … well, that remained to be seen.
The wave had pushed me into some sort of underwater mountain— a painful stopping, but one that probably saved my life. Out in the center of the oceans were the badlands where any merfolk could claim any piece of dirt—so long as he could defend it. Princes were knaves, and criminals kings out in the middle of the oceans.
Several slow moments passed while I tried to gauge my location. Sun filtered through the waters above me, and from the brightness, I realized that I had several advantages. First, I was in shallower waters, which could mean that I might find someone to help me. To the north of Deep Waters were several allied kingdoms … maybe I had landed in one of them. Unfortunately, the chances were greater that I had landed in a kingdom that had no alliance with Deep Waters, but I prayed that my father’s reputation had preceded him and would ensure my safety. Second, I had no broken bones or severely lacerated fins, so I could swim. Third, I had my medallion that all sea folk wore; I would be able to contact home. Fourth … well, I had yet to decide if there was anything else that was good at the moment. Regardless of my circumstances, the Most High was in control, and He knew my location even if I did not.
I moved to the edge of my little cliff and looked below—expecting to find very little, but not expecting to find what I did. I was no longer in Deep Water territory. I was in the neighboring kingdom of Ajatasatru. Not good. They hated my people … even with a treaty, they would not trust me—the daughter of the king, no less. I reached for my necklace. I still had it. If anything, I would be safe once I could make landfall. I would have to wait until the soldiers passed.
I slept until then.
“Well, well, well. If it isn’t one of the Deep Water fish.” Someone prodded me with the end of a spear—handle, not pointed.
I rolled over onto my side and looked up at a soldier who now bent over to take a better look at me. I wore nothing to say that I was royalty, but being from Deep Waters was bad enough for them. They pulled me after them and threw me into a cage pulled by two sea hounds, neither of which appeared friendly. I would be taken to the capital, but maybe I would be able to leave once they realized that I had no knowledge save that I was there and wanted to return home. The kingdom might not like mine, but that wasn’t to say that the people were cruel or anything. They would understand that I was out for a swim when the wave came…I hoped.
Ajatasatru was a wealthy, powerful kingdom, second only to Deep Waters in influence, which probably explained much of the antagonism between the two kingdoms. At no time in the seven thousand years of history between the two kingdoms had there been peace between Ajatasatru and Deep Waters. While we were never taught to hate them, we were taught to discern what they said. The kingdom exists off the East African1coast—a good day’s trip out into the ocean, but still close enough for frequent contact between the peoples. I wondered what sort of calamity had happened above the waves when the water crashed. We who live below the waves understand the nuances of the oceans and know how to protect ourselves, but it is not so with those above the waves.
The capital of Ajatasatru sits on a plain, stretching out for what seemed forever. The people of the city-state watched me—wondering who I was, even as I wondered about them. The people of Ajatasatru were not at war with Deep Waters, but their leadership was. Like every other people in the world, the people of Ajatasatru needed to know the Truth of the Most High God who had sent His Son to reconcile His creation to Him. Perchance I would be the one who brought this great news to these people even in prison. Others had; why not me?
At the edge of the city, the soldiers unharnessed the sea dogs, for they are unable to pass through the shield that keeps the dry land and wet land2 separated. The animals were led away by other soldiers, and I was forced to travel through the shield,3changing into my human form and feeling every inch of the hurt that had been postponed. My lungs labored to breath, and I had to stop several times to catch my breath. The subjects of Ajatasatru gave me wide berth, for everyone knows that blue-haired women can only be from one family, can only be one thing—a priestess-princess of Deep Waters. My presence here would be known immediately, and already the king and his court would be deciding my fate. It would not do to kill me, for word would reach my father, and the news of my death would start a war between the two kingdoms—something neither wanted.
I heard the whispering, felt the stares, but despite my pain, I pressed onward.
The king’s palace sat in the center of the city on a small hill. Soldiers stood around the perimeter of the wall, monitoring all who passed. Their gazes narrowed as they watched me. Just inside the palace, I was forced to stop while the chief of the king’s bodyguards approached me. He studied me, his gaze hard and unwelcoming as he took in my blue hair … and the medallion on my necklace. Finally, he snorted. “You’re out of Deep Waters now, fishy.”
The walls of the throne room were blue-gray in color. I had noticed that the soldiers all wore kilts of blue-gray. Even my wrap had become the same coloring, but in a slightly different shade than the others—there were traces of red and bright blue in the wrap from where blood had mingled with my scales. Power and … something else, something less tangible, filled the room as did silence as I walked across the marbled floor, cool and smooth, to where the king sat on his throne.
The king of Ajatasatru was a younger man, closer to the age of my eldest brother. I had never met the young king until now, but I knew that he did not like Deep Waters. Next to the king, standing guard, was a man that I knew—Niall, son of Niles the Vizier of Deep Waters. Niall and I stared at each other; he was the same age as my second oldest brother. We had thought that Niall had died three years ago during a skirmish with Ajatasatru … but, well …
“I see that you are alive and well.” I drew myself to my full height, which was still a good head shorter than Niall. He had not inherited his father’s weaknesses.
The king sat back on his throne and studied Niall and I, while Niall and I continued to glare at each other. “I suppose that you two know each other?” the king said finally. “That would have to makeyou part of the court, then.” He leaned forward to study me better. A slow, evil grin spread over his mouth.“No, I rather think that you might be of … greater worth.”
“If it isn’t the little princess,” Niall sneered. “Out for a swim and got lost?”
“I wouldn’t be here if your idiot guards hadn’t dragged me here,”I answered, crossing my arms over my bosom. “You might want to check with them before they start throwing around just any person who crosses their borders. So, how long have you been here?” I looked around the room. “You’ve done well for a deadman.”
Niall crossed the space between us, raising his hand as if to hit me, but he stopped before the palm of his hand connected with my face. I continued to watch him. He looked at the guards who brought me into the room. “Were there no men with her?”
The guards looked at each other. “No, sir—only her.”
Niall’s sneer took on an evil look. “No brothers for the little princess. Well, now, that is interesting.” He turned back to the king.“Sire—Azure Maris, Princess of Deep Waters.”
The king stroked his short beard. “Princess of Deep Waters … hmm. That could be advantageous for us, now, couldn’t it?”
The two men exchanged a look. Not a nice look, I might add, but decidedly malicious—at least toward me. There were a number of things that they might do to me, and I didn’t like most of them, but at least I would not be married off to some prince; the king was an only child, married, with two young sons. Niall could pose a problem, but I doubted he would marry me. I could be thrown into prison—that would be interesting enough.
“She is the triplet, is she not?” The king had continued talking, but I had not paid attention.
“She is. She is the middle of the three, with two brothers: Brun and Yo’ash. Earth, Water, and Fire—the triplet priesthood of the royal family.”
“And she is here … alone …” The king tugged on his beard again, and his gaze fell on me. “We might just be able to do something with you … it could be very interesting to see what might happen …”
“Sire, the ambassador from High Plains has arrived.”
I turned sharply. High Plains was a kingdom farther away from any of us—clear in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. If Ajatasatru hated Deep Waters, then High Plains loathedDeep Waters. I watched as the ambassador entered, took one look at me, and sneered.
“Well, if it isn’t the princess of Deep Waters.”
“And if it isn’t one of the dumb of High Plains.” I leaned forward.“It is good to know that you have learned how to speak.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “Why is she here?”
“She washed up on our territory,” the king answered. “We were wondering what we should do with her before you arrived. Now she’ll know that we are allies.” He glanced my way as he continued to speak. “We cannot very well allow her to return to her own kingdom, can we?” He looked at the ambassador. “Any ideas?”
“We could ground her.”
Niall and the king grinned even more dangerously than the previous time.“Ground her,” the king repeated. “Ground her … that is a lovely idea.” He motioned for one of the guards to come along.
“Ah, Princess Azure. I do hope you enjoy your time above the waves.
Make certain you get a nice tan—you are much too pale.”
1 Throughout the book I will use above the waves terms for directions and bearings for two reasons (1) no one above the waves knows our written language, and (2) our spoken language uses a variety of whistles and clicks which do not translate into written word.
2 Sea folk refer to dry land and wet land as our two locations beneath the waves. Wet lands are any place where we are required to be in our sea forms with gills and tails, while dry land is any location where we remain in our land forms. We rarely change at the surface of the waters, hence the many stories about us.
3 An energy field that separates the waters from the land; these fields are very specific, allowing the sea folk and inanimate objects through the shield, while sea animals cannot pass through the shield. During war or disaster, we allow nothing to pass through the shields.