I lay in the bed, an arm around Toralee’s shoulder. “I’ve decided,” she stated, her face pressed against the side of my throat. “I forgive you for costing me that week off monitor duty.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ve decided to forgive me for saving my life.” I stretched out, studying the room. The quarters of most of the crew were spartan, containing little in the way of personal effects. Most of them did not seem to have much they wanted to remember. Toralee’s walls, however, were covered in pictures. Young, old, many women, a handful of men, all of them Aquatic Kingdom Imperials. Their species varied greatly, no two pictures showing the same type of body. And yet, a few traits were obviously shared among all of them. The bright blue eyes of the squid girl, her delicate blonde hair. “Is that your family?”
“My dynasty, yes. They always expected me to be a good little Tentacle Clan researcher. Hiding out of sight, keeping things running from behind the stage. You know I was the first Tentacle Clan to be brought into the family Dynasty in over five thousand years? They thought I would be happy being out of the limelight. But I showed them all.” She leaned in. I tried to keep the excitement out of my body language. This is what I had been hoping for.
“That’s something I’ve been wondering about… How did you become a member of this crew? I talked with Renee about it, but she said that you joined before her.”
“Ah.” Toralee flushed. “It’s a pretty dull story, to be honest. Trying to piss off my Dynasty by doing something outrageous. The usual two-century-old bullshit. I signed up for a pirate crew as the navigator. I was traded between a few different crews, before settling in this one. It was curious, actually… When I joined, they had just lost quite a few crew members. Brie and the captain were the only two who were staying on. There had been some kind of conflict between the captain and the crew. Things had gone poorly. They never really talk about it.” She curled up against my side, sighing. “Why do you want to know?”
“We’re arriving in three days. I’m going to be sold off to someone. I honestly don’t want that to happen.” I sighed, stretching a bit. “I need to figure something out. Some way to convince the captain not to sell me off.”
“Why don’t you just have sex with her?”
I frowned. “I mean… Do you think that’d actually persuade her?”
“Well, it could hardly hurt, right?” She gave me a cheerful smile, and slid her arm around my chest, yawning sleepily. “Things tend to work themselves out.”
“God. Finding humans was really the worst imaginable thing for your species work ethic, wasn’t it?” I sighed, tousling her hair. “I need to get up. You say that Brie was here before you, then?” The navigator nodded softly. “Guess I’ll need to talk to her next.” I sighed. “You have anything else helpful that you could note?”
Toralee frowned. “Well… I mean, I thought you might know about this already, but most Reptile pirate ships have sponsors. Someone in the Reptile Kingdom, usually a dragon, who gives us the Letters of Marque that prevent some of the most severe trouble with the Imperial Fleet. But our ship has never had a patron like that. As far as I know, the captain operates without any Letters of Marque at all. She could get them, if she wanted, but she chooses not to. I’d like to know why. It might’ve let us avoid that trouble with the Tiger Warrior…”
I nodded. “Thanks, Toralee.” I bent forward, and kissed her on the cheek.
That evening, I sat in the mess once more. “Now, as I had said, Jared Loach had found himself with the desire to prove his love for the queen, by humiliating her husband. You might say that this isn’t the wisest of plans, but Jared Loach was an actor.”
Alcohol is actually a relative rarity in the Empire. The same nanotechnological virus that gives them near-immortality and great powers of regeneration makes it spectacularly difficult for them to become impaired through most drugs. There is a certain distaste for such subjects in the Empire, not least because they are highly addictive to a populace whose greatest problem is apathy and boredom. The preferred method of dealing with such feelings is to take up a craft or an art. This is the reason that the Empire claims, at any rate.
The Fae Kingdom, however, eschews such things. They partake in mind-altering substances, not least because they find it an important part of the human experience. Alcohol is only one of these, but it was with booze that Jared set his plan into motion. The entire troupe drank heavily in celebration of the play. Jared played the lead, and the queen played his heroine. The King watched from his throne, as the play began, and the entire camp drank merrily, Jared included.
As the play began, the contact between Jared and the queen was light; Caresses, longing looks. Nothing untoward. The king showed no sign of jealousy. In the second act, Jared became more daring. He took the queen in his arms, and kissed her with all the passion in his heart, in front of the entire camp. The King watched with nothing more than polite and slightly drunken interest. Finally, in the third act, Jared lost his composure. He tore the queen’s dress off and made love to her in front of the entire court. The King joined in the cheers and called for an encore performance.
The next day, Jared was paralyzed with terror. He had cuckolded the king in front of the entire camp. He had done something unforgivable. He spent the entire day in his tent, waiting the King’s wrath with barely contained fear. The second day, his worry grew worse. By the seventh day, he was certain that the king had planned something awful. He went to his friends, Puck and the Straight Man, to ask them for their advice on how he could avoid the king’s wrath, and protect the Queen.
They told him the truth, because they couldn’t stand the pain that their friend was going through. The King and Queen, despite their titles, were not married. They were not related, either. They had no connection save for their dual monarchy. The truth of the matter was that the King and Queen had a cuckoldry fetish. They sought out lovers to flash in front of the other, pretending to be married.
At first, Jared refused to believe this. He railed against the Champion and the Fool, and stormed away to ask the truth of the queen. And then, she admitted that it was true. She had taken him to groom him as a partner. Oberon had played along with the ruse, taking lovers for a brief period to give the queen an excuse to act jealous. This play-acting had been just what she had needed to fill Jared’s heart with the desire for her, so that he would be driven to greater heights for her.
She had tears in her eyes as she told him this, because she genuinely enjoyed his company. It might be impossible to say that she loved him, for the Fae are incredibly long-lived, and it is difficult to connect with someone so unlike yourself. But his company brought her pleasure, and he was a clever and caring lover. The loss of these things was not a happy circumstance for the queen. But the truth, once known, could not be unknown. She knew that there was no way that the human, now that he understood the truth of the relationship between the King and the Queen, could maintain the passion that he once had. She offered him safe passage back to his own home and whatever wealth he wished that she could provide, as thanks for the kind service he provided in bringing a bit of romance and excitement to her life for the first time in ages.
But Jared would not allow it to end this way. It had been his own curiosity and desire to know that had provoked the situation. He stayed that day, and the next, and the next, continuing his performances. The king took another lover, and Jared met the queen, and railed. He shouted of the infidelity of the king, and his cruelty to the queen. He kissed her fiercely, with all the passion of forbidden intimacy. He embraced her, and they spent the night together, filled with the same intense feelings they’d had when they first had lain together. And the next time that the king found a lover, Jared did the same. And so it went, night after night, year after year.
Jared was an actor, and a dedicated one. He realized the truth of the Fae Kingdom. In society, every being is playing a role that masks who they truly are. But when you wear the mask for long enough, it ceases to be a disguise. The king had never been cuckolding the queen, and yet Jared’s passion had been real. He simply had to find that same passion within himself again. And for one as talented as Loach, it was easy.
So it was that Jared Loach continued his position as the Queen’s consort. He may still be there today. Someday, perhaps, he and the queen will tire of the roles that they have chosen for each other. Few things last forever, even in the Empire. But their romance continues. It may be based on a false premise, but that doesn’t make it any less real.
I paused for a moment. “Now, I will tell you the story of Sinbad’s sixth voyage.” I pursed my lips, and my eyes went to the captain. “I must note, in the interest of full disclosure, I do not know if this story is fact. It fits with the rest of what I was told, and what few connections there are with the Empire, I can confirm. But much like Sinbad and the Wandering Mind Clan, it is a story that may have no basis in reality. But, nonetheless, I am sure of one thing: This story is true.”
Sinbad and the cabbie stood in a small garden. A young Plant-Kingdom woman sat in the grass, a soft smile on her face as she meditated. It was a small plot, set between two towering manors. Mirrored sides on the manors reflected sunlight down, bathing the garden in the dingy, previously-owned light. And yet, it was beautiful. Sinbad placed a small card in front of the woman, and stepped away from her. “What was that about?” the cabbie asked, his voice soft.
“I’m giving away my fortune. I won’t have much use for it, soon.” Sinbad smiled. “And before you ask, yes, you will be receiving a substantial share. Although you may end up not wanting it by the time we are finished. Money gives you options in this world, but it isn’t the source of happiness.”
“Yeah, but options are. So, your sixth voyage… You wanted to see the Fae Kingdom.”
“Yes. The portal that chased me… I believed that the Path was the key to my quandary. It could take me where I needed to be. I confess, I didn’t know if where I needed to be was with my parents, where I could save them, but I did not know where else I could go. I was sure that if I could find the Courts…” Sinbad sighed. “But they are not so easily found, without the aid of the Fae. I spent years searching for a way to find it, and heard one contradictory story after another. Three years, it took me. It was only about a year ago that I finally had a lead.
Sinbad frowned down at the world. The desert was visible from space. A vast, white-brown wasteland. No cloud floated over its surface. It was perfectly circular. Not just apparently circular from their lofty perch; The Empire had surveyed it, and it was precise. The desert never spread or shrunk. Attempts to reclaim it had always failed. This world had been part of the Beast Kingdom once, but its mineral resources were marginal. As the Beast Kingdom had shrunk, this had been abandoned, leaving the world untouched by living hands. The captain stood next to Sinbad. “Yea, it was here we found the fellow. One of the Reptile Kingdom. He was raving, claimed that they’d taken him. Never specified who ‘they’ was, just that he’d walked through the center of the desert, and had come from a great city.”
Sinbad frowned. “I thought the Fae didn’t have cities? Just troupes.”
“Well, that’s what they’d want you to think, isn’t it? Anyway, they’re the only Imperial race I know that would engage in this kind of nonsense.” The captain grinned toothily. “At any rate, it’s the only option I know of for how to find the Fae Kingdom. You have your survival gear? That desert- It’s dead like nothing else. No water falls there. No life grows there. You’ll be recycling awfully effectively.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time.” Sinbad climbed into the small shuttlecraft. “Thank you for your help.”
“Hey, you’re the one who’s paying. You’ve got the emergency beacon? Just give us a ring if you need a pickup. We’ll do our best to get you out of there.”
Sinbad landed on the edge of the desert. The skin-tight spacesuit would collect his sweat as his body desperately tried to cool itself, and recycle it into water. It would also recycle other things. His pack contained survival rations for two weeks, and he had eaten well, to prepare a light coating of fat. It was something of a preparation ritual before traveling into the desert on any world. Under the baking sun, you depended on the largesse your body had saved up. The trip would be awful for his kidneys, but the Panacea Fruit was able to help that. And so, Sinbad set off into that glittering wasteland, his hand-computer marking his path, and tracking where he was at all times.
There was no wind. A strange phenomena, considering the lack of cover. There were no dunes, either. The desert was a flat expanse of sand. On his third day, he saw a great sparkling on the horizon. He walked for another two days until he arrived at the edge of what he had taken for some kind of oasis or inland sea, although there had been no sign of such a thing from orbit. The days baked like an oven, and he spent most of them under the surface of the sand, letting himself stay covered, and sleeping, before setting out with twilight. Walking through the frozen nights was far more manageable.
The sparkling turned out to be a great field of glass. Shattered, semi-circular. He stared down at the massive sea of broken shards. They were as sharp as obsidian. Walking through them would’ve torn his feet to ribbons in less than a hundred paces. He began to circumnavigate the sea, and hoped desperately that he’d never find out what had created them. Sand melted into glass at nightmarishly high temperatures. Temperatures that would turn granite into a flowing liquid. Temperatures that would turn him into a very well-dispersed gas. He had absolutely no interest in encountering whatever strange phenomena would cause that.
The trip should’ve taken about a week. The desert was several hundred miles across, and he was making good time, thirty miles a day through the cloying sand. On the eighth evening, he got up, and checked the computer. He should have reached the center of the desert. He decided to push on; If he had passed through, and nothing had happened, he would be better off continuing and getting out of the desert that much sooner.
On the fourteenth day, he arrived at what should have been the far edge of the desert. There was nothing but more waste. On the twenty-first night, his survival rations ran out. He sat down, and studied the hand-computer. He held it up to the sky, and took the star positions, to confirm his suspicions. They were not his native stars. They were not, in fact, stars that the computer was familiar with. In every arc of the sky, there should have been some familiar faces; Those great stars which would shine visibly in any part of the galaxy. There were absent.
Wherever he was, it was not in the Milky Way.
The Homeland of the Fae. Every Kingdom had a home, although some were more obscure than others. Some of them had many homes. But the Fae, they did not settle. They traveled, forever. Some were content to accept this as all there was to the Fae. Others, however, believed that there was more to the story. They claimed that the Fae homeland did exist. No two stories agreed where.
Some said that it was a space station the size of a moon. Others said that it took the form of a tremendous oxygenated loop of trees, surrounding a star like a barrier reef around an island. Some claimed that they had made a Ringworld for themselves, an endless path that they could never reach the end of. Still others claimed it was another dimension, one that did not follow our laws. A dimension that was nothing more than a flat plain, extending in all directions into infinity, endless.
Similarly, there are disagreements about the nature of this home. Some believe that it was abandoned as the Fae took on their wanderlust. Others say that it is still inhabited, but that those who live there are now of a different kind, and hold the wanderers in contempt. And there are those who say that it was destroyed, by war, or plague, or carelessness, or caprice. There are even those who say that the Fae Homeworld still exists, and is a secret kept to those of the Fae, providing a home and a retreat to any of the Fae who wish to travel there, so long as they do not bring others.
All that the myths agree on is that to reach the Kingdom of the Fae without the aid of one of the Fae is impossible.
It was on the thirtieth day. His reserves of fat were long gone. He walked through the endless, broiling oven. Occasionally, the sands and the sky above changed colors. First they were yellow and blue. As he continued to travel, the sand changed to a ruddy, brilliantly blinding orange. As it did, the sky above shifted slowly, becoming a delicate and deep-hued indigo. He continued. More days passed. He couldn’t think. He could only keep moving.
On the thirty-fifth day, the sands changed again. They were red, now, as red as blood. Or perhaps his eyes were bleeding. He couldn’t tell. The sky had turned brighter, becoming a brilliant violet. He kept moving. His water was still there, but he wondered if he had drunk it too many times. It didn’t seem to quench his thirst. The temperature was unyielding. But he kept moving.
That had been him. No matter how bad things got, he had kept moving. He had soldiered on. He had left the things that made him happy behind, because he had to keep traveling forward. But for what? To save his family, his brother? Even if he did that, they would have nowhere to go. It was a hopeless task. He was never going to make it out of the desert. He felt his eyes ache. He wanted to cry, as he had before. But his body wouldn’t spare a drop of moisture for that useless task.
On the fortieth day, his suit failed to gather enough water to refill his pouches. He would be dead within a day, dehydrated by the relentless heat. The sky and the ground changed again. The sky was now white, pure white, at all times. Even at night. It was not bright, but it was endless, and it made his eyes hurt. The sand had turned black as ebony. It was like a great tar-pit, and he could not even see where his footsteps had been.
He saw them, as he walked. The women and man he’d left behind. He could’ve been happy with any of them, if he had denied his duty. He could have given up. And what shame would there be in it? He was helping a bastard to hurt others, to save his brother, who would be disgusted to know that Sinbad was working with the colonel. Would his parents be glad to know the things that he had sacrificed for them? Would the children he’d had and never known forgive him for not being there? Should they?
That was the question he realized, as the sun baked his brains. Where did he need to be? What did he need to do? What was most important? And he realized he could not answer the question. He tripped, and fell.
The cold water shocked him. He rose from the surface of the small river, gasping for air, his clothing soaking, his body shivering. He blinked blearily, looking around. He stood in the middle of an oasis. A large one. The ground was covered in lush green grass. The crisp smell of sweetness. He distrusted it instantly. He climbed out of the water, and knelt by the edge, dipping a hand in. The spacesuit, running on fumes, could confirm that it was safe. He lifted a handful, and let it slowly pour through his fingers. The white sky and black sands were visible beyond the edge of the oasis, but this river was life. After the handful trickled back down, he bent forward, and drank greedily.
There was fruit among the trees. He studied this, too, ignoring the shrieking pains in his stomach. He ate it, and was nearly sick. He kept it down, and then ate another. They were sweet, and his starved stomach protested as it was forced into overdrive to consume the sweet flesh. He collapsed on the ground and slept for some time. He woke up, ate again, drank again, and then started traveling down the river.
He heard the voices in the distance. Laughing, giggling. He approached, but cautiously. The thick jungle foliage surrounding the river provided plenty of cover for him to sneak closer. When he was at the edge, he peered into the water.
Two young women were bathing together, laughing pleasantly. Their clothing, slender, silky, and diaphanous, was hanging from a nearby branch. The two women were not human. Humans did not have skin like midnight.
That is not to say it was dark, although it was. Their skin was the almost-too-black of interstellar void, and dappled with brilliant white starbursts. Their hair was impossibly long, and the color of ink, floating around them. They spoke in soft, unfamiliar languages. And they were beautiful.
The one on the left was short, perhaps five feet tall. Her figure was curvaceous, obvious even obscured by the cool water. She was facing away from him, but he averted his gaze, feeling slightly guilty. This put his attention on the one on the right, and he couldn’t tear his gaze away from her.
If the first was beautiful, the second was divine. Taller, certainly, but he liked that. Her shoulders were broad, and she had eyes like twin novas. He could see her face, and it was exquisite, porcelain-white like a mask. Inhuman. More inhuman even than most Imperials he met. She might not even be Imperial, he realized. And yet, her lips were soft and red, and her eyes crinkled with a cheerful smile. Her arms and legs were long and graceful, and her breasts were full, nipples visibly stiffened from the cold water.
He did not step out of cover. The two women did not need to be shocked by the sudden appearance of a rough, unkempt stranger in the middle of their bathing. He turned. Then the shriek rang out.
When he turned back, the two women had stood up out of the water. A thing stood at the opposite edge of the river. It was metal, ten feet tall, and humanoid only in the broadest, vaguest senses of the word. It did not speak as it raised a bladed fist into the air. The taller of the two women pushed the other back, her hands rising as though she planned to fight the thing bare-handed. That may have been the moment that Sinbad fell in love with her, as she defied the terrifying creature. But he was certain that she would stand no chance. He hurled himself out of the cover. The river was ten feet across, but he leapt it in a single smooth movement. The plasma torch sprung to life in his hands, his one concession to safety, his one weapon. Its superheated edge slid through the neck of the metallic creature.
There was a moment of silence. Then the body crumpled to the ground, even as the head fell. He took the head from the ground, slinging it over his shoulder, and turned towards the women. He tried to think of something to say as he shut the plasma torch off, slipping it back into his belt. He looked scarcely less frightening than the massive metallic thing had been. Its head was a nightmare of exposed wires and corroded steel, lights dying as the power ebbed out of its body.
The taller woman motioned for him to turn around with one hand, her other arm covering herself. He nodded, and turned his back. When he turned to face them again, they had dressed. The shorter wore an elegant gown, diaphanous and sheer. It hung from her shoulders down across the length of her body, transparent as glass. Her chest and groin were covered by cups of some brilliant black silk, mixing curiously with her skin. A veil hung across her face, hiding her. The taller woman stood, holding a delicate glass saber in one hand. Around her throat was a choker made of gold. It was the only color besides black and white on either of the two women. A heart hung from it across the curve of her bosom. Other than that, she wore no clothing. She motioned for Sinbad to follow the two, and he did, trying not to let his eyes linger too obviously on her bare back.
They traveled for nearly an hour, following the river along its winding banks. He could not tell precisely whether he was intended as a prisoner, or a guest. But there was nothing but the endless desert in every direction besides the river, so he supposed the question was academic. He decided to try a stab at conversation. “So, where are you taking me, ladies?”
“To our city, Firdaws. Our father will wish to meet the man who has saved his daughters.” The taller woman was the one who had spoken, even as the shorter one peeked back at Sinbad.
“You speak English?”
“Of course. We have had travelers like you before, noble stranger, although none for a long time. We are glad for your saving us, for the Golem would have slain us. I am certain that our father will wish to reward you.”
I nodded. “All I really want is some information, if I can find it. I am Sinbad, the Spacefarer. You are?”
“I am Rahma, and this is my sister, Zahad.” Rahma held up a hand. Sinbad stopped, and frowned, then saw where she was pointing. Rising above the jungle was a great black glass city. It stood tall, and sunlight reflected off the smoky obsidian. It was as though something had burned the sand into the shape of a city, slightly melted, its lines organic and flowing. His jaw dropped at the sight of it. It sparkled like a gem. “That is our home. And now, I hope, at least for a time, it will be yours, as well.”
“Your sister doesn’t speak much, does she?”
“Her voice would be dangerous for you to hear. She is not like you. Were she to speak directly to you, it could harm, perhaps even kill. I may speak to you, for I am… maimed. Unworthy.”
Sinbad opened his mouth to continue, but Zahad turned to him, smiling, and took his hand. She smiled up at him warmly, her fingers curling around his. “My sister likes you. She is grateful to you for slaying the beast which threatened us. I must apologize, I am sworn to protect Zahad, but my carelessness forced you into action.”
“It’s no trouble. I’m just grateful I could help.” Sinbad frowned. “Have you heard of the Path to Victory?”
There was a pause, just a little too long. Then Rahma turned. “Firdaws contains a great library. If the knowledge exists within our city, it will be there. But before we arrive, I must ask of you three things while you stay. First, you must be cautious of that thing.” She pointed towards the head. “The Golem may seem dead, but it is only asleep. If you were to awaken it, then it would be a disaster. Second, every night, when the bell rings, you must stay within the palace. There, you will be safe. Third, you must never speak the name Antiqam. If any in this city but me were to use the name, disaster would surely result.” She looked him in the eye. “Do you understand me?” Sinbad nodded. “Then we may enter.”
He looked up. They stood before a great obsidian gate. It was split through the middle, the cut jagged, but the edges meeting so perfectly that there was no sign it had ever been less than whole until it swung open. And with that, Sinbad walked into the city of Firdaws.
I paused. “Now, I believe that the time has come for a meal. If you will pardon me, though, I need to go see Brie, on the bridge.” I stood up, smiling, and stepped out of the mess as the crew began to discuss.
In the bridge, I found Brie. She was watching the retreating sun. The last jump had happened a few hours ago, and we were now on a sublight course to intercept the world where I would be sold. She ate her dinner from a tray, enjoying the bricks of grilled protein with obvious relish. She favored me with a smile. “I’m sorry I missed the story.”
“I think that the Red Cap Society were recording it. You can listen to it later, if you like.” I crossed my arms. “Tell me about you and Kry, and your time in the Imperial Fleet.”
There was a crash, as the tray hit the ground.17844 Views