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Chapter 48
By Setcheti Posted in Story on 31 July 2022 3793 words
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In the Land of Stories Old

Chapter 48


They moved their camp back a bit as night started to fall, keeping the fire between them and the water. And keeping a watch, Ari noted with approval. Jack had fallen into a deep sleep almost as soon as he’d gotten dried off and dressed again, one hand wrapped around the medallion, and Ari thought back to the day of his own Marking when he’d screamed the gulls off the rigging while tied to the mast of this boy’s distant ancestor’s ship. There wasn’t enough magic left for such things anymore, of course, not since they’d lost the Lords of the Sea.

He hoped the double-damned Daughters of Circe were suffering mightily in a cursed afterlife of their own making right now, he really did.

There was a splash somewhere out beyond the shore, and he moved closer to the man who was on watch to help him look. “A fish, I think.

“It was, I saw it jump.” The young man, who was called Hans and was from a country Ari had never heard of, did not take his eyes off the moonlit horizon. “You have questions of your own, I think.”

Ari leaned back against nothing and stretched out his legs. “I don’t even know where to start. It sounds like the rest of the world was broken apart like a pottery jug and its pieces scattered across the seas. So much of the magic was just burned away, even the directions are different from what they once were.

Hans smiled. “Yes, I saw your reaction to being told this place was now in the world’s south. Do you think the fairies are all gone?”

All but one, yes. And no, I don’t think the quarter-fairy your three wild friends who aren’t from Italia are playing house with is anything like them. She couldn’t be, could she? The power just isn’t here anymore.” He paused. “And that’s the real reason you’re all out here, isn’t it? Your magician doesn’t have the power to fight the cursed remnants of old magic that are welling up in the world, and neither do any of the others.

“There aren’t many,” Hans told him. “Very few are born now. Merlin is one of the more powerful of them, but only when he pushes his limits to a dangerous degree.” He glanced sideways. “He is the seventh son of a seventh son and the thirteenth born in his family, if that means anything to you.”

Ari hadn’t thought he could grow pale as a shade, but he felt himself do it. “That’s…gods, really?

Hans nodded. In the moonlight he saw a large tail flick up out of the water, throwing droplets into the air in a shower of silver. “If there are any gods left awake, I do not think they are nice ones.”

Sleeping gods can only dream,” Ari told him. “Their children became the lords of wind and water, earth and stone, mountain and forest and swamp…and then they, too, fell to dreaming.” He made a face. “I honestly don’t know if any other children of the gods’ children are still left. The merjin…well, their ancestors did what they felt they had to do to survive. Some of the rock trolls could still be around, I suppose.” He held up one hand and looked at it, flexing his fingers, testing the feel of the power that was keeping him near-corporeal. “I could possibly lead you to where you might find some of them, if they still live. They were odd, but more tolerant of humans than the merfolk ever were.

“In the morning, we will have Merlin make you a stone to sustain you,” Hans said. Another sideways glance. “He can support you himself without it, of course, but you would be a drain on his magic.”

And I don’t want to be,” Ari told him placidly. “I haven’t lost all my empathy for the living, you know.” He sighed as another tail flicked above the water. “They’re teasing you.

Hans smiled. “I know. I wish they were not so dangerous, I would love to talk with them.”

Oh believe me, they’d love to talk to you too,” Ari told him. “But they wouldn’t stop with talking, if you know what I mean. You should probably try to find a woman who won’t kill and eat you after sex.

That made the young man laugh out loud. “Probably. But there would be worse ways to go, I think.”

Ari had to chuckle. He wasn’t wrong…

Just outside the circle of the fire’s light, Jack appeared to be sleeping deeply and peacefully, but he wasn’t. He was Dreaming.

He stood on a beach in a pretty cove, the sand soft under his bare feet, looking out over the water, and when a powerful man bearing a spear strode up onto the sand he at once took a knee. “My lord…”

“Sel,” the man supplied. “Rise, young one, and let me look at you.”

Jack regained his feet, and found himself pinned by the sea king’s dark, fathomless eyes. He felt like his entire life to this point was being weighed and measured and considered. He couldn’t have told how long it took, minutes or hours or even years, but finally he was released and Sel was nodding. “You’ll do,” the sea king said. “You are more than I could have hoped for, in fact. Your brothers would never have been found worthy.”

Jack snorted. “My brothers cannot swim, my lord.”

Sel smiled. His teeth were sharp, like a wolf’s. “That is not the only reason, and you well know it. But we will not waste our time speaking of them. You passed my first challenge, Jack-of-the-Sea, and I have found you worthy to bear my Mark and claim the line of your ancestor, Adam de Valeureux. I charge you to see his former lands released from the foul taint of the fairy bitch who killed him, and to continue to do your part to protect the people of the island nations as well as those who will look to you as their king.”

“I accept this charge, my lord Sel, and pledge to devote myself to it to the best of my abilities,” Jack replied. He reached up to touch the medallion, and found it gone. “What…”

“It is a symbol only,” Sel told him. “There is power in it, yes, and you may use that as you see fit, but the true Mark is one you will wear on your skin, one which can never be taken from you except by me. But I have no fears that you will dishonor yourself in that manner.” He leaned in closer. “I have seen to the heart of you, Jack-of-the-Sea, and my dreams which were once dark are now filled with hope. You have surrounded yourself with men who are equally true and good, who are as brothers to you, and who will stand with you to keep the world safe…but know that a hard road is ahead of you, and part of that you must walk alone.”

Sel took a step back. “I require witnesses!” he called out, and then opened his mouth wide and a Sound emerged. It was something like a bell, something like the call of a great creature, and also the sound of the wild waters roaring during a storm, and Jack caught his breath from the power of it. And then he saw a fountain of spray explode up from the water, and another, and two more Sea Kings strode up onto the beach. One of them was a burly, bearded man bearing a gold trident which matched his spiky golden crown, and the other was more slender but looked no less strong, white-haired with deep-set brown eyes and a long white moustache which fell around his mouth like the whiskers of a catfish, bearing a spear which looked to be carved from ivory. Jack bowed to them both, and the burly one laughed. “Well, Sel, this I did not expect! How did you find a child of Adam de Valeureux?”

“He found me,” Sel said. “Jack-of-the-Sea, these are King Triton, Lord of the Once-Southern Waters, and King To, Lord of the Once-Eastern Waters.”

Jack bowed again, lower this time, and To smiled. “Pretty manners on this one to go with his pretty face.” He cocked his head. “Hmm, you’ve swum with mine in the past, Jack-of-the-Sea, to wrest the sea’s pretty treasures from her smallest chests. Did you honor the sacrifice of the chests as well?”

Jack wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but he did his best to answer the question he thought was being asked. “I sometimes ate their meat as the other divers did, if that is what you are asking me. When I did not eat them, I gave them to the children on the beach to take home for their families, both for food and for their shells.”

To nodded. “That is what I was asking you, yes. To take of the sea’s bounty is acceptable, but to waste it is not.” He cocked his head. “Why did you not take it home to your own family?”

Jack couldn’t prevent the laugh that escaped him. “My mother would have died of shame to know I was diving for my pearls and their mother, and my brothers would have turned up their noses and then mocked me mercilessly.”

“And so you shared your harvests with those who were both worthy and appreciative. Very good.” To stroked his whiskers thoughtfully. “Sel, he is descended from your favored, but I would add my claim as well. Whether he knew it or not, this boy has honored my ways and my laws.”

“I agree,” Triton rumbled. “And I would add a claim of my own, as I was offered and accepted the allegiance of the Kingdom of Valeureux, and that allegiance should now lie between this boy and the remaining peoples of the sea.”

Sel rolled his eyes. “Then we will have to call the others, you cannot claim and be a witness at the same time.”

Triton looked at To. “I’ll call two, you call two—but you get the Lord of the Deeps, he and I have never gotten along.”

To snorted. “He does not get along with anyone, but very well.” And then they both opened their mouths and Called as Sel had, but Triton’s had the sound of a great horn being blown over mighty waves and To’s of high, thin chimes sounding through water falling over rock. And in answer to their calls four more sea kings emerged. Jack knew immediately which one must be the Lord of the Deeps, and To saw this and laughed. “Yes, that is him. Interesting, isn’t he?”

Interesting was not the word Jack would have chosen: the Lord of the Deeps was terrifying. His mottled skin was greenish-gray spotted with brown, his pale blue eyes were peering out of a face wreathed with fleshy whiskers and writhing tentacles, and he had what looked like a pair of leathery wings folded at his back. He opened his beaked mouth and the sheer weight of power attached to the laugh that emerged almost drove Jack to his knees. He recovered himself enough to bow, however, and to find his voice. “My apologies, my lord, for my assumption that you would all look somewhat alike.”

“Keep your mouth shut, Lu,” Sel ordered. “The world needs him sane and not a drooling shell.” The whisker-tentacles wiggled at him in a rather rude way, which made To smirk but Sel ignored. “My cousins, you have been called to bear witness to the claiming of Jack-of-the-Sea by myself, Lord Triton, and Lord To. You may examine him, all except for Lu—because, I repeat, we need him to stay sane.”

Jack bowed to them all, and braced himself, which made one of the newcomers look at him consideringly as he stepped forward. “Well well, you learn fast, Jacques de la Mer,” he tutted. He was thin and hard, and his eyes were the heavy green of deep, sluggish water. He bore a long knife of carved and polished bone. “I am King Don, Lord of the Once-Western Waters, and trade was my bailiwick.” He looked into Jack’s eyes, then nodded. “Yes, very good, you know the value of work—your own and that of others. I will require one thing only from you: that you will never take trade in the lives and bodies of people, for the idea that one can exchange gold for a soul is an abomination.”

Jack didn’t have to feign his horror. “They used to trade people?!”

Don nodded again. “The world was once more full of lives than you can even imagine, young Jack, and there will always be men who do not value anything save their own profits.”

“I swear, that will never happen on my watch,” Jack told him, swallowing. “I have killed men for…well, it was not less, but I killed them for it and I would again.”

That had Don leaning in to look him in the eye again, and when he drew back his mouth was a hard line. “Yes, you had the right of it. Tia, you will want to see this.”

That had the only queen among the kings gliding forward. She was small, dark-skinned and black-eyed, and her long greenish-black hair was woven with shells and bones. The warmth of her was intense, and she chuckled when she saw Jack react to it. “I am the Lady of the Island Waters, young Jack,” she said, looking him in the eye but briefly and then drawing back with a nod of her own. “Yes, you did well to kill them, although it was too swift for my tastes.” A little hiss escaped her. “I enjoyed making men such as them suffer for harming the young.”

Jack felt this required an answer. “I wanted to, but I feared that was a pit I might not be able to climb back out of,” he admitted. “As did my friends.”

She patted his cheek with a smile, showing blackened teeth that were small and sharp like those of a fish. “You were right to fear that, yes. I approve, Sel.”

Sel just nodded, and her place was taken by a tall, corpse-pale sea king with eyes that were a blind, icy white. He bore no weapon and did not speak, but reached out a bony finger and touched Jack’s forehead, and Jack couldn’t help but gasp at not just the coldness of it but at the strange, heavy mix of warm darkness and cold light that filled his mind. The sensation lasted only an instant, however, and then the silent king was drawing back from him and offering a nod to Sel. Jack, however, put a hand to his head. “He…how can something so cold also be warm?”

Tia’s small hand pulled his arm back down, and real warmth flooded back through him; distantly, he could hear drums and bells and feel a wild song calling for him to dance, and she let go with a laugh that had the echo of the song in it. “Sel, I will place a claim on this one as well. He can hear the song of my seas.”

Sel sighed. “Fine, but you are the last.” He stumbled as Lu bumped him. “What did I say?”

“You said don’t drive him insane, but then you let Tia sing her song to him—like we all don’t remember what happened to the last Jack she took a likin’ to,” Lu replied, and this time his voice was like a man’s with a rich brogue, and instead of the beaked mouth from before now a man’s lips were visible. He glided forward, and when Jack forced himself to meet his eyes the Lord of the Deeps threw back his head and laughed. “Oh, this one has guts, I like that. My approval also comes with conditions, young Jack. Your friend the magician carries a destiny with him, and you are to help him in two ways: First, when he finds occasion to offer his service, accept it with the power of your line. And second, when he asks you to help him break a vow he made in honesty, do so without question. Do you understand?”

Jack nodded. “I am sure I will, when the time comes.” He cocked his head. “If I asked what the Deeps were, would I go insane from the knowing of it?”

“Yes,” Lu said. “You would. Use your imagination instead, and that knowin’ that anything you can create in your head will not touch the wonder and terror of my domain.”

Jack offered him a short bow. “Thank you.”

And to his surprise, Lu smiled at him before turning and gliding back to his place. “You are welcome, young Jack.”

Sel straightened, hefting his spear, and indicated that Jack should kneel. “As his worth has been witnessed by the Lords of the Seven Seas, so I declare Jacques de la Mer to be henceforth known as Jacques de Valeureux, heir to King Adam de Valeureux and the only true claimant to the line and the throne of both Arendelle and Valeureux. I declare that the line of de la Mer should have no claim on him. His responsibility to them as one of their line is at an end, although the responsibility of a man to his blood family remains unless it be severed by bad faith or treachery.” The spear touched one shoulder, then the other, and then the top of Jack’s head. “So it is said, so it shall be.”

Power crashed down through Jack, at once like a heavy weight and a golden fountain erupting inside of him. He could feel generations of his ancestors, their roots in the land and on the sea, their successes and their failures. Their memories whispered of the proper response to him, and he took a deep breath. “I, Jacques de Valeureux, do accept the responsibilities of my line, and pledge to uphold them to my last breath. I will teach my heirs to honor and respect the power and responsibilities that being of the line entails. And I accept the claim of these sea kings, and the sea queen, and swear to fulfill the avowed promises I have made this day to the best of my abilities. On my honor, so I have said it, so it shall be.”

“The vow is true,” Sel intoned, and the other sea kings murmured agreement. “As Jacques de Valeureux has accepted the claiming, let him be bound, and let him receive the Mark which will in time let all men know he has the blessing of the Lords of the Sea.”

Jack regained his feet with Tia’s help. He wasn’t sure when he’d lost his shirt, but he did notice the lack of it when Don moved behind him and pinned his arms at his back. “This is going to hurt, young Jack,” he murmured, sounding somewhat amused. “You will scream.”

“Yes, do scream,” Sel instructed him. He touched the point of his spear to the center of Jack’s chest, right over the spot where the medallion had hung. “As loudly as you can, please. To remain silent, while admirable, sets a high bar those who come after will curse you for.”

“And make some of them confuse posturing with strength of will,” To agreed, touching his own spear to the same spot. “It is well to avoid that.”

“I have often delighted in the screams of men,” Tia admitted, adding the point of a long black knife to the same spot, which was now prickling rather unpleasantly. She smiled. “But know that I will not delight in yours, young Jack. This is necessity, not pleasure.”

And then Triton’s trident joined them, its three points seeming to weave around the others, forming a circle that burned. “It was I who witnessed the Marking of Adam de Valeureux,” he said, “and I am honored to once again claim the alliance he offered me. The Sea Peoples, my children’s children, will be friends to your line so long as there is honor and respect between you.”

“Jacques de Valeureux,” Sel intoned. “I mark you as head of your family line. My blessing will be on you and yours so long as you keep my ways and mind my laws, your enemies shall be my enemies, and you shall call on me as your lord in time of need. All those who swear allegiance to me shall know each other by my sigil and my song, shall hold the enemy of one to be a common enemy, and shall be as family to each other regardless of rank or station. So it has been, so it shall be.”

Jack forced himself to relax into the strong hold of the Lord of the Once-Western Waters, because he knew tensing would not serve him. “So it has been,” he replied in a firm, strong voice. “So it shall be.”

And then the six points pierced his skin, allowing raw, wild power to flood through his body, and Jack couldn’t have kept from screaming even if he’d wanted to.

In the camp, Merlin sat up suddenly and looked across the fire. Jack was glowing. “Jack…”

Ari turned his head. “A sleeping god can only dream,” he said. “And so mortal men must meet him there rather than in the waking world.

Hans looked too. “He looks pained. Is he all right?”

The shade chuckled. “He’s probably screaming his head off right about now, but he’ll be fine—tired when he wakes, but fine. And a swim in the sea will make him feel better.” He turned back to the moonlit waves, where the merjin had grown quiet. “After this, being in the sea will always make him feel better; it would do well to remember that.

Hans and Merlin traded looks and then Merlin lay back down…although he continued to watch Jack across the dwindling fire for quite some time.

 


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