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Shafts of golden light pierced the green twilight, penetrating the waving fronds of the forest to leave pools of light on the ground. The path to the Great Palace, paved with pearl shell, unraveled along the sand; a broad ribbon of iridescence, suddenly burning into a patch of blinding white when one of those shafts touched it. On either side of the path, at charmingly irregular intervals, stands of long, waving kelp, beds of colorful anemones, and coral "bushes" were being carefully tended by a small horde of tiny sea creatures.
No one ever actually set foot on the path, or truly even needed to use it. This was, after all, the bottom of the sea. People swam. Even the few two-legged people, like the Sea King's children, swam.
Nevertheless there was a path, winding through a "forest," though the forest was kelp, the "birds" were fish, and even the "hawks" had an analogue in the form of sharks and other predators.
There were all these things because the path went to a palace. The Tradition said that all palaces should have winding paths traveling through mysterious forests filled with enchanting wildlife.
So this Palace, although underwater, had such a path.
In many ways, it was a good thing that no one ever actually walked on the path. Pearl shell, while pretty, had very sharp edges, and no one down here wore shoes.
And that, Ekaterina, the youngest daughter of the Sea King, reflected, as she swam in a deceptively languid manner toward the palace, was a pity.
Katya loved shoes. Dainty, embroidered silk slippers. Thigh-high leather boots. Strange wooden things that were like walking with tiny tables strapped to one's feet. Dancing shoes, red-heeled shoes, shoes that were hardly more than thin little straps, shoes that were substantial enough to pound a nail with. She loved them all.
In fact, she loved clothing. She adored clothing. It didn't matter what the style, the fashion was, she loved clothing the way she loved shoes.
Sad, really, since no one wore clothing, or at least much that was like clothing, down here.
As a warrior in her father's Personal Guard, she wore her fish-scale armor of course. In fact, she was wearing it now, since she had been summoned for official business. It was as pretty as she could engineer, despite being first, and foremost, very functional. The fish scales glittered in the errant beams of sunlight filtering down through the kelp branches. It was the same pearly white as the shells beneath her, and gleamed with the same iridescence. The scales of the formfitting tunic were about the size of her thumbnail, while those on the sleeves of the tunic and the equally formfitting leggings were much, much smaller, about the size of the nail of a baby's littlest finger.
Her sharkskin boots were a dead white, matching the sharkskin belt and gloves. The belt held nothing at the moment. No sword, no knives. But Ekaterina didn't need a weapon. Ekaterina was a weapon.
Her hair had been bound up into a severe knot
another pity. She had lovely hair, as pearl-white as the shell also, and the fact that living under the sea allowed only two basic hairstylessevere knot, or floating freewas another source of private regret for her.
Small wonder she welcomed her father's regular summons.
Hopefully this would be another trip to Dry Land! Even better if it was to a new bit of Dry Land, a place she had never been before! That would be glorious!
The nearer she came to the Palace of the Sea King, the more people she encountered, though most of them were dolphins and the smaller whales, who served as her father's Palace Guard. You could always tell a Guard creature from the fluke studs denoting rank; small gold or silver rounds much like earrings, and put in the same way. She always winced at a fluke-piercing, though the cetaceans were quite proud of enduring the pain. She supposed it must be like islanders' tattoos. They, too, made a point of experiencing the pain of their decorations.
There were a few mer-folk as well; a couple of the mermaids of her mother's Court, sitting, gossiping, and combing their hair. Mermaids did that a great deal. Part of it was because when your hair was long and floating free in the water and you didn't have two dozen little cleaner-shrimp to keep it disentangled and sorted the way the Queen did, it got knots very easily.
But part of it was The Tradition, which said very clearly that mermaids spent a lot of time combing their hair, sitting on rocks and singing, or both. Her father had managed to put an end to the part of The Tradition that had once made them sit on rocks and sing sailors to their doomnow they only enchanted the poor lads so that they forgot their One True Loves, at least until the One True Loves managed to break the spell. Her father was clever that way. He hadn't wanted sailors with their ears stopped up with wax or clay slaughtering his subjects, so back when he'd been the Sea Prince, he'd gotten hold of half a dozen very good bards and paid them generously to write songs on the new theme. It had taken several years of concentrated effort, spreading the songs, singing them in contests, even introducing very elegant versions into several nearby Royal Courts, but the effort had paid off handsomely. Now the only sea creatures that lured sailors to their doom were the Sirens, and they didn't acknowledge her father's authority, claiming to be descended from gods. So the Sirens could handle the odd clever hero with murderous intent on their own.
Katya reflected that her father really was one of the cleverest Sea Kings of his line. He wasn't the only King of the Sea, of course; for one thing, the sea was twice as big as the Dry Land, and it would be absurd to think that one person could govern all of it. But he was certainly one of the cleverest of those currently ruling. As a young Prince he had quickly come to understand how The Tradition shaped the lives of everything, and had determined that it would no longer be The Tradition that controlled the lives of his family and his people, but the other way around. To that end he had studied as much about it as he could, certainly as much as many Godmothers, and had educated his subjects in how it worked as well. But when you were a magical creature, as the peoples of the sea generally were, The Tradition had a tendency to shove you about more ruthlessly than any mortal.
Unless you knew how to do a little preemptive shoving of your own.
As Katya swam past the coral garden, she caught sight of her sister Tasha with her nose buried in a book, her back cradled by an enormous sea fan. There were no Godmothers for the sea creatures; evidently only mortals got the services of such cleverly manipulative creaturesbut the Sea King was doing the next best thing to getting one.
He was training his very own Sorceress.
Now, all of the Sea King's childrenand he had quite a fewhad positions of real authority or meaningful jobs. He had told Ekaterina once that this was the way to make sure none of his offspring "went to the bad." "Everyone needs to have responsibility," he had told her. "The cleverer you are, the more responsibility you need. Nothing breeds discontent like idleness."
Tasha was one of the cleverest of his daughters, and she had a real aptitude for magic. Not that Katya envied her the special tutors, the tower of her own, and all the special considerations. Not once it had become obvious that Tasha was never going to leave the Palace grounds again.
Not that Tasha cared. That was the genius of the Sea King; his children were all considered and studied as carefully as any sculptor would study a block of stone, and then positions were created for them that suited not only their talents, but their aptitudes, and not only their aptitudes, but their desires.
Katya had enough wanderlust for twenty sailors. She was never happier than when she was sleeping in strange beds, eating strange foods, and wearing strange clothing.
Oh yes. Especially wearing strange clothing.
Tasha did not even notice as her sister swam past. But then, it would take the eruption of a volcano beneath her feet to get Tasha out of a book of magical theory once she was deeply engrossed. Such ability to concentrate was invaluable to a Sorceress, whose life might well depend on being able to carry out every step of a complicated ritual while an Evil Mage was throwing everything he had in the way of an attack at her head.
Now, Mischa, the Crown Prince, would not dare to allow his mind to be so focused. A Kingor a Prince in line for the throneneeded to be able to divide his attention among a dozen or more things at once, and change from task to task on an instant, exactly like a juggler keeping a complicated number of balls in the air at once.
Mischa was superbly suited for such a thing, to the extent that the people were already calling him "Prince Mikael the Clever."
That was a talent he shared with Ekaterina, though the throne was absolutely the last thing she wanted. Ever. Not all the lovely dresses in the world and the ability to wear them underwater could have bribed her to take the throne.
The kelp forest abruptly gave way to open sand, and the Palace rose up before her in all its splendor. A dazzling ray of sun pierced through the surface of the ocean far above, and bathed the intricate spires and delicate towers in green-tinted glory. It looked for all the world as if nature had conspired to put that shaft of sunlight right there
And of course, Katya knew very well that it had.
Here again was the hand of The Tradition at work. The Tradition decreed that the first sight of the Sea King's Palace should be of it bathed in a shaft of sunlight piercing the depths.
So, of course, it was. All the timewell, all the daylight time at any rate. By night, as long as there was a moon of any strength, it was bathed in moonlight. As a child, Ekaterina had taken particular and mildly mischievous delight in dragging visitors through the kelp forest on wretched and stormy days just to see that shaft of sunlight break through the clouds in time to perform its magic.
The walls were made of pink coral, carved and polished to a soft glow. Beautiful patterns had been inlaid around each window in mother-of-pearl, black and red coral.
Unlike the fortress-palaces of Rus, this place could not possibly withstand a siege, or even the attack of a child with a sling and a stone. There looked to be two dozen spiral spires, like the long and delicately pointed sea-shells or a narwhal's horn, and half again as many filigree towers. In fact there were twenty-one spires and nine towers, each of them the private domain of someone in the Royal Family. Not just the King and Queen and their brood, but the Dowager Queen, and several assorted Aunts and Uncles. Whenever another family member turned up, if there were no vacant places available for them, another was created.
This wasn't just whim or fancy. This was, after all, the sea, and such an arrangement made it possible for the Royals to come and go as they liked without having to pass through the rest of the Palace. When you lived at the bottom of the sea, an exit was as easy as swimming out your window, and the towers gave discreet points from which to do so. No doubt many Royals in the past had taken such exits to have adventuresor even to meet with a paramour they had rather their spouses didn't know about.
To Katya's immediate right, the parade grounds, which just now were empty, but often as not held her brother Mischa as he drilled his troops. For the most part, the Sea King's troops were ranged in "battles" that had very little to do with war. There were monsters in the sea, enormous behemoths that came with ravening appetites for which a whale was nothing more than a morsel to whet the appetite. When they appeared, they had to either be killed or driven away, and it took strong creatures armed to the teeth to do so. Mischa thrived on combat, hence his position as the Commander of all of the Sea King's forces.
And though the army was a small one, it was formidable, for Mischa employed magicians alongside the armsmen, training the two to work together as a seamless whole. To Ekaterina's certainand it was very certainknowledge, no one else in the sea kingdoms did such a thing. As a consequence, it was vanishingly unlikely that any attempt to take this kingdom by force would succeed.
Today Mischa was out there alone, drilling. The resistance of the water to fast movement made sword-work impractical, so the most common weapons beneath the sea were extremely powerful bows and arrows, trident, spear, and knife. Today he was working with knives, battling a seaweed-stuffed dummy that already was losing its stuffing.
She swam a bit faster; this close to the Palace there was always the chance of being ambushed by a would-be suitor, some acquaintance trying to find a way to the King more direct than waiting his turn for an audience, or one of the young women at the court hoping for one of Katya's brothers to happen along.
Katya was of the mind that her brothers were perfectly capable of deciding for themselves who they would and would not court, she was not about to play the stooge for yet another sycophant, and as for would-be suitors for herself
Those, she could do well enough without. So far there had not been a single young man she had ever met that could keep up with her. To be brutally frank
they bored her silly.
All they ever thought about was the Court. Who was advancing, who was declining, who was allied with whom, and what that meant for the tiny, tiny circle of "those in the know." They never looked past the boundaries of the magical barrier around the Palace grounds to the greater and far more dangerous world of the open sea, much less to the Dry Land. Most of them didn't even know the names of the countries that bordered this Kingdom, if they weren't also Sea Kingdoms.
They didn't think twice about the very powerful and, at the same time, very delicate magic that kept the water warm, those without gills breathing, and predators peaceful. This was the only place in the Kingdom where a seal could swim with an orca and the orca wouldn't even think of harming it.