USURPERS 4. The Servant-King: Ruled by Fear
Added On: February 6, 2013 8:41 pm
Type: Prose
Community Series: MOTU Modern
USURPERS

Written by: M. Lawson Humble

4. The Servant-King: Ruled by Fear

Heavy were the twin hearts of the king who sat high upon his underwater throne of living coral. In his youth, in the peaceful days, he quite enjoyed the plays performed by the skilled actors who travelled from every corner of the vast Liquid Lands to entertain the royal court in the capital city of what is now called Rakash. But now, now that his life was the subject of their plays, though ably written, he always watched in agitation and left feeling empty and depressed. The king sighed.

“My King!” shouted the lead actor as he swam upward from the floodlights of the stage and into a brilliant spotlight. “My Queen! Royal family! Courtiers and citizens all! Welcome! Welcome to our performance!”

The king clapped politely as those around him shouted happily and yelled enthusiastically. The queen laid a delicate webbed hand upon his knee. Her touch was warm in the cold water. It always was.

“And now!” continued the actor. “If you will, kind patrons, peace! Peace, for we shall now begin!” The applause died. The actor nodded, and then lowered his voice theatrically. “For your enjoyment,” he said, “we now humbly present: ‘Squidish Rex!’”

As the actors assembled, and as the house lights grew dim within the Aquarium- the largest, most ornate, and most expensive theater in the entirety of the Liquid Lands, the king whispered to his wife. “Why do they insist on calling it that?”

The queen smiled her beautiful smile and the gold and green scales on her flawless face glittered like jewels. “I think it’s cute.”

“But…” The king made a sour face. “No one has called me ‘Squidish’ since I was a tad. It—“

“Oh, hush. I think it’s a fine name for a play glorifying your rise to power. Of course,” she smiled, “if you don’t like it, force them to change it. Or better yet, execute them all. You are their king, are you not?”

“I’m not that kind of king,” he said solemnly.

“I know.” The queen kissed his cheek fins. “And that’s why I love you. Now be quiet. They’ve already started.”

Despite himself, King Mer also smiled.

…………………

In the middle of the second act of the play, the actor portraying the part of Young Mer- of Squidish spoke. “Brother! Help! They’re dying! Dead! All dead!”

King Mer sighed. “And so we come again to this part,” he whispered. “How many times must I relive that day?”

“Oh, my love,” said the queen in her gentle, bubbling voice. “I know this is hard, but your subjects love the tale. It is history. It is who you are. It is who we are. As a kingdom.”

“A captive-kingdom, and I am its servant-king.”

The play continued. The eldest brother of the future king was speaking to their father. Squidish stood meekly behind his ten brothers.

“Father! Squidish has brought me news! The waters! They are poisoned!”

“Where?” growled the ancient actor portraying the old king. His voice boomed through the water like the thundering vocalization of a bull war-whale.

“In the deep sump that leads to the western outlying cities of the Crystal Sea. Thousands are dead! Many more—“

“Guards!” shouted the old king, interrupting his son.

“Command us, mighty Rakash,” replied the three actors playing guards.

“The costumes are quite good though. Aren’t they?” said King Mer in his queen’s ear.

“Hush!” she said as she nudged his with her bare shoulder.

An hour passed, and the story was very nearly told. The ten brothers of Squidish and his father- Old King Rakash had been slain by the magic and trickery o the Skull-who-Speaks. The Liquid Lands were now leaderless and without hope.

But then, when the kingdom dwelled within the dark of the deepest trench, young Squidish, last remaining son of Rakash returned to the dying city, transformed from his hero’s quest that spanned Eternia, both below and above. And though his gentle manner remained, he rose to the challenge of the awful days and seized the golden trident of Rakash- the weapon of kings that had been passed down from father to son since the first drops of rain fell upon Eternia’s back and created a pool many eons ago. Squidish was no more. King Mer ascended. The kind ruler. The just champion of his subjects. Loved by all, but feared by few. On stage, crowds of actors roared with delight. In their seats, the audience joined them.

“At least they glossed over my shame,” whispered King Mer.

This time, his wife did not chastise him. She turned her eyes, glowing like lanterns in the clear water upon him, soothing his anxious hearts with her gaze. She always knew when to cease her jesting and attempt to arrest her king’s- her husband’s black moods. She was successful in her efforts perhaps half of the time.

“You did what you had to, Mer,” she said. “Our people- the entirety of the Liquid Lands- us- you and I would not be here today but for your… negotiations. Your father fought. Your brothers fought. And they died.”

“But they were no one’s servant.”

“Mer. Listen. You are not a servant to the Skull-who-Speaks. You are your own king.” King Mer did not speak. The queen put her arms around him. “Mer. My sweet. You—“

In a harsh whisper, with a mass of tiny bubbles escaping behind the words, King Mer said, “In exchange for not poisoning our entire kingdom with toxic runoff from his vile mountain, I agreed to allow the Skull-who-Speaks to call upon my army at his leisure. I put this idea forth. It was my proposal.” He paused. “My suggestion. And he can call me. Summon me. Any time. To fight his foolish skirmishes. To bend the knee. And… if that is not servitude, my queen, what is?”

For a moment, the queen did not speak. The actors where taking their final bow. As the house lights began to rise, revealing the thousands of patrons, with a sad smile, she said over the disorienting sound of the swirling water created by wild applause, “The alternative is to die. We can’t challenge his might. You know that. You wouldn’t… we wouldn’t stand a chance. A king must do what must be done. Not for glory. For his subjects. To keep them safe. Happy. Healthy. And look around you, Mer.” She pointed toward the ecstatic crowd. “They are. They are.”

“Except for my soldiers who have been slain by the enemies of the Skull-who-Speaks. What of them? What of their families?”

For this, she had no reply.

…………………

“How was the play?”

“Why underneath Eternia are you not asleep, little one?”

The youngest son of King Mer came swimming swiftly from his pod into the arms of his mother. “I couldn’t sleep. I missed you.”

“We were only gone for a handful of hours.” The king’s eyes softened. “Well are your brothers asleep, at least?”

“They are, Father.”

The queen passed the tad off to Mer. He embraced his son and shrugged. “Then that is something , I suppose.”

The boy was small. Smaller even than the majority of the fish who dwelt near the great city. But the tad had little need for physical strength. Like his father, he was clever. Observant. A thinker.

The king and queen had four sons. Rarely had a family in the Liquid Lands produced fewer than ten sons. And never a king. But his subjects did not gossip. They loved Mer.

“Father,” asked the tad.

“Yes Engraulis?”

“Will you take me to see the villages in the Kelp Jungle tomorrow? You promised you would take me soon.” The tad’s sleepy eyes looked into those of his father’s.

For a moment, King Mer considered saying, “No.” His mind was already running through the many duties that required his attention upon the morrow. But he dismissed those concerns as his son clutched tighter to his neck, his small body slowly giving up its fight to stay awake.

“Very well, Engraulis. We shall go tomorrow.”

Engraulis smiled widely and then yawned, pushing schools of bubbles out through his small gills. “Promise?”

“Promise.”

When the darkness of the deep water lightened, King Mer woke. Engraulis eagerly swam into his father’s pod. The tad was already dressed in this travelling armor and carried his play-spear.

“Let’s go!” he said.

Mer nodded slowly, groaned and inhaled, allowing his body to float upward from his soft bed of caressing anemone. “I’m up. Alright, alright. I’m up.” The tad swam around the royal suite noisily, whooping with excitement. The king attempted to quiet him. “Engraulis. Hush. Don’t wake your mother. I’m coming, I’m coming.”

Mer then swam over to his wife’s pod, kissed her beautiful face and turned to leave.

“Mer,” she bubbled sleepily. “My dear, sweet Squidish. Be safe.”

“I will.”

The queen closed her eyes.

“I don’t see why we need so many guards,” said Engraulis bravely.

Mer held his son’s hand as they swam through the mighty Flood Gates of Rakash into the wild beyond. Grim royal guards encircled them like satellites around binary stars.

Mer explained. “Although our subjects love me, there are still a few who would do us harm. For these few,” he sighed, “we must be kept safe. It is a king’s duty to be… protected.” Mer sighed again. “No matter how weak it makes me appear… How weak it makes me feel. Listen to me: I am no warrior, son,” he confided, squeezing the tad’s hand tighter. I am only king by unhappy chance.”

“Will I ever become king?”

King Mer shook his head. “No, Engraulis. No. The throne is not for you. But take heart,” he said, noticing the pained look written across his son’s face. “Your duty will be quieter, but a far sight more fulfilling, I’ll wager. In truth, I envy you. It was to be my path.”

“What am I to be, Father?”

“When we return, your training shall begin. The Great Oracle of Okeanos has spoken, and you are to be the next Wizard of the Water.” The tad stopped swimming. He floated, stunned and still as if in utero. “Are you pleased?”

Engraulis found his voice. “Father… Yes. More than pleased.”

The king nodded. “It will not be an easy path, and more than once, I daresay, you will wish to give up. But perhaps not. There is strength in you to be sure.” Mer paused for a moment and then spoke. “A different kind of strength, perhaps. A strength more akin to mine. Your brothers are powerful, yes, but they will need you after I am gone. Especially Prince Mobula, when he is king.”

An hour of hard swimming into the cruel currents passed. Both Mer and Engraulis were exhausted, but hid it well. They rested as soon as they entered into the safety of the Kelp Jungle.

“Did you know,” said King Mer to his son after they each regained their breath, “that this is not the first time you have visited the jungle?”

“No, Father. When?”

“A long time ago. When you were very young. Now come. Guards.” The guards tightened their circle around their king. One of you go and tell the Mistress of Kelp that we have arrived.” Mer turned toward his son again as one of the guards swam into the swaying, thickening greenery. “Just wait, Engraulis. Just wait until you see her palace again. Such wonders… Such wonders.”

“Tell me father. Please?”

King Mer smiled. Then he cried out in agony. Thin red blood vessels burst in his luminous eyes and a gelatinous black fluid began to ooze from the slits that were his nose.

“Father! Father! Please!” shouted the tad.

Mer began to speak in a shaking voice. Alarmed, his guards surrounded him and held him upright. “No. No. Not now. No.”

“What—“

“I… have been summoned, son.”

“I don’t understand.”

Mer sighed. “Of course not, Engraulis. Of course not. When I leave, the guards will explain to you what they can.”

“You’re leaving?”

The king grabbed onto his son. “Yes. But I will be back. Blood will be on my claws, that much is true, but for you, your brothers, you mother and our kingdom, I will always return."

The guards knew better that to offer to accompany the king. This summoning was for Mer alone.

And so, with heavy hearts, the king called back as he swam away, “I’m sorry, Engraulis. I’m so sorry…”

Mer swam for nearly two hours through the vast, sometimes barren, sometimes beautiful seas and through the dark submerged subeternian passageways that led into the Mountain of Snakes- the home of the Skull-who-Speaks.

Mer squeezed into a tiny opening in the rocks above, compressing his cartilaginous tissue to make himself fit. And he did fit. But just barely. After he popped out of the hole like a cork, the king found himself in the stagnant waters of the lake that festered in the belly of the mountain like an open wound.

An unnatural glow lighted the way toward the surface. He stopped. Something entered the lake from above.

“A… hand?” thought Mer, swimming cautiously, but ever upward. He choked as the greasy fur that covered the hand released its foul oils into the lake, and a thousand drowning fleas abandoned their home, swimming frantically with many legs toward the light. Toward salvation. None were successful. In time, their microscopic corpses would be swallowed up by the sad, inbred, blind predatory fish of the stinking lake.

The hand beckoned with its large, long, and deadly fingers. “What under Eternia…” thought Mer. “Is that… the beast? Fishing? Disgusting monkey,” he said aloud, bubbles escaping from his gills and lipless mouth.

Mer swam closer. The undulations of the beast’s fingers began to cloud his mind. “If only I can reach his hand… All will be well. There will be peace. Happiness. An end.”

But against the odds, Mer persevered. With a violent thrash of his head, he broke the spell of the beast.

And then, a small shadow darted past the king. Mer’s triple-chambered stomach tightened. “A meal,” he moaned. “A fish.” He sighed. “That poor creature does not possess the resolve to resist the pull of the beast.

Just when Mer ceased swimming upward, turning his back upon the blur-of-a-fish, seeking to spare himself the sight of its awful death, the fish cried out. It cried out as the beast’s long black claws pushed into its flesh. But the cry was the cry of no fish.

“Father! Help! It hurts! Father! I’m sorry! I—“

And then the screaming stopped. Engraulis, beloved youngest son of King Mer, future Wizard of the Water, was now no more than a meal for the beast.

For a moment, the king floated unmoving, suspended in the poisonous water. He could not comprehend what he had witnessed. Engraulis was back among the swaying greenery of the Kelp Jungle, not here. Not… “He followed me,” said the king. “My son followed me here. I… led him here. To his death. My association with these… monsters… my weakness has led to his end. My! Fault!”

As Mer howled, the festering lake bubbled. “My son!” he continued to scream. “In the belly! Belly of the beast! Belly of the beast!”

And then Mer exploded from the water and dove head first into the unwashed body of the beast. The king continued to scream in the face of the murderer of his son, despite knowing that the beast could not understand a word. Time and time again, Mer pounded the already-broken nose of the beast. “I will kill you!” he shouted as his wild anger fueled his sledgehammer blows. “I will kill you! I will kill you!”

The beast struggled through the unexpected pain and fought to retain his grasp upon his own rapidly receding consciousness. And with a roar, the beast then desperately summoned a massive amount of brutal power, using it to kick the king off of him with a mighty heave.

The king flew through the close air, and landing directly on his back, slamming onto the surface of the water with a deafening slap. Slowly, he began to sink. Darkness crept in around the edges of his vision and he sank. He sank.

“No!” he exhaled as he came to. “No!”

Again King Mer exploded from the lake. But this time, the beast was gone. Engraulis was gone. In the belly of the beast. Belly of the beast.

Mer went mad then. And in his madness, he vowed to pull the Mountain of Snakes down stone by stone. And he actually made a very good start of it before he realized he was no longer alone. The sound of heavy metal echoed through one of the corridors that led to the lake.

“My son!” shouted King Mer to his fellow warrior. “You have to help me find the beast! Help me help me help me! I need to kill the beast! My son is dead! The beast must die! Please! Please!”

The cybernetic man walked closer. He was clearly uncomfortable. He clacked his jagged metal jaw against his filed teeth a few times before speaking. “I don’t know what you’re saying, frog-man, but you need to stop tearing up the boss’s home. Now… come with me. He wants a word.” The wondrous right arm of the cybernetic man then began to whirr and hiss, pumping out steam and plumes of smoke from burning oil as it transformed from an elegant sub-atomic bio-phasetron into a nasty, sharp hook. The cybernetic man looked at his hook and laughed a giddy, gear-grinding laugh. “Come with me, I said,” he said when his laughing fit had subsided, “or I’ll hook you. Gig you like the froggy you are.”

King Mer could not understand the cybernetic man’s words. In fact, the biology of the two warriors differed so, that even if they wished, neither could physically pronounce the others’ language. Frustrated, the king pulled a slimy stone from the wall and threw it at the cyborg’s head.

After easily dodging the missile, the cyborg laughed. But then, hot anger began to course through his veins and tubes. “Now you’ve done it.” He scowled metallic.

King Mer lunged. The cybernetic man spun, catching the king in the back of his head with the blunt edge of his hook-hand. The devastating force generated by the brilliantly-designed arm had been known to turn diamond to dust, but it only knocked Mer unconscious.

The cybernetic man sighed, and with a sour face, picked up the ugly, slimy creature, slung him over his shoulder, and walked back to his master.

And after the cyborg had dumped the servant-king at the foot of the throne of bones of heroes, he walked away in angry silence.

In the corridor, not fifty yards from the throne room, the cybernetic man stopped dead, listening to a voice in his head. After a time, he turned around and began to retrace his steps back to the throne room with hot murder bubbling in his brain.

And then a voice- a real voice called out. “Where are you going, Kronis?”The cybernetic man answered without turning. “Trydor. I’m going to see the boss. I’m going to kill him.”

The machinist caught up to his friend. His jade sword was drawn and he was dressed for battle. “Funny,” said Trydor grimly, surprisingly unsurprised by the coincidence, “so am I.”

Back upon the throne of bones, the alchemist laughed as the watched King Mer struggle for breath. The king was still in a daze, but was beginning to wake. King Mer heard the laughter through his haze. And then he heard something else. A voice. A voice throbbing in his head, pushing out from within his spongy cartilaginous skull, trying to burst free.

The voice snorted and then spoke. The sound was the sound of scraping rocks. But Mer could understand the words. “He is going to let you die here, you know. He will watch you dry up and then feed your desiccated corpse to his panther.”

“Then leave me,” thought King Mer, “to my death.

For many long moments, the voice was silent. But then it spoke. “You have great power in you, you know…”

“Leave me. Leave me to die.”

“What do you want, Mer? What do you want… little Squidish?”“To die.”

“I don’t believe you,” said the voice. What do you really want?”

King Mer began to cry. The precious moisture pooled around the alchemist’s bare feet. The Skull-who-Speaks screamed with laughter as he watched his servant-king sob and mutter to himself.

“I want…” said Mer inside his own head, “my son back.”

The rockslide voice rumbled angrily. “That is beyond my power.” Another snort. “Last offer. What. Do. You. Want?”

“Death… for…” Mer pointed upward toward the grinning skull as hot hatred blossomed next to his rotting grief, “him.”

“There we are,” said the voice. “Finally.”

“But… what good—“

“Cease doubting,” rumbled the voice. It’s exhausting. Listen well to me: If you do kill him, when you kill him, what will happen to your subjects? Your kingdom? Your armies? You?”

Mer understood. “I will be free. We will be free. All of us.”

“Very good. Can you be brave?”

“No.”

“You must.”

“I cannot… Please… Help me. Take away the fear… It has been with me for so, so long…”

“Done,” said the voice.

Mer smiled. “I need a weapon,” he thought as a black veil lifted from his mind. I need water.”

The voice laughed its strange laugh. “You shall have both. And Mer?”

“Yes?”

“Go. Kill.”

Just then, a torrent of supernatural sea water flooded into the throne room. Mer was electrified as the water kissed his body. And riding on the back of the sudden waves, the golden trident of Rakash- his father’s trident- his trident leapt into his hands. King Mer rose with the shallow tide, swelling with power and out for death.

The alchemist stood as well and squealed in astonishment as, without a second thought, without fear, the sea king plunged the gleaming trident into his throat. The glistening, bloody tines erupted out of the back of his neck. The Skull-who-Speaks fell.

End of Part Four.

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