When the Symvoulos said he had a small vessel waiting in the pass I assumed it would be bigger than an average ship. I thought it might be comparable to the large merchant ships that sailed through on their way to wealthier islands. But I was very wrong. Until now the largest ship I had seen was the merchant ship Vendetta, but this ship dwarfed that and other ships that were anchored nearby.
It was magnificent. We approached in a ship’s boat, a row boat that was used for ferrying people and supplies from the ships to the port.
I was in awe by not only the size but the sheer beauty and craftsmanship of the Symvoulos’ ship. The entire vessel appeared to be made of the finest red wood and was polished to a slick sheen. It stood out like a sparkling ruby nestled in the blue waters, not that it needed help standing out since it was already the largest ship in the pass. It was hard to miss.
The sails were raised and the deck was busy with people pulling on ropes and climbing up the mainmast. Someone was hanging off the edge of the bow polishing the figurehead, which was in the shape of an octopus reaching its tentacles in every direction. They seemed as if they were searching for something. My amazement must have been evident on my face or the Symvoulos was using those superhuman powers of his to read my mind.
“Beautiful, isn’t she? She’s called The Ymrich.” His tone wasn’t the proper and authoritative one he had back on the island. It sounded more natural and had a hint of pride from me admiring his ship. That wasn’t surprising. Most mariners took pride in their vessels, why would this hooded mystic be any different? I didn’t respond and I don’t think he minded. As we made our approach my initial feeling of unease resurfaced, I still had no idea what the Symvoulos wanted with me. I killed the Wannapaign, which felt like some terrifying nightmare. I suppose part of it was a nightmare when I think back to that dream of the river and the snow.
The Symvoulos’ posture had remained very stoic on our way, except for momentarily telling me the name of his ship. He still wore the hood and I have no idea what he looks like beneath. That unnerves me to no end, that and the fact that I agreed to go along with this man I have never met on a ship I have never seen to discuss something I likely know nothing about.
“Neri, you are safe. Try to remember that.” He sensed my anxiety again. I am feeling quite confident that reading thoughts is his mystic Symvoulos power. He began to speak, again in that natural tone that suited him better.
“I am bound by royal law to uphold peace between the people of Atlantis and the royal families. If I was to cause or allow harm to come to either side of that peaceful bond the penalties would be severe for me.” I could tell he was attempting to comfort me however, I was more anxious than before as we finally reached the boat. Whatever he said about my being safe, how could I believe it? I don’t know him. He could be lying. I can’t even see his face. I can usually tell a liar when they look me in the eyes.
Whenever I would trade my catch at the market the mariners would try to tell me what I’d brought was worthless. I’ve spent the better part of my life on the water and knew every type of creature in these seas. I wouldn’t waste my time trading what was without value. All I had to do was look into their eyes and I knew when I was being lied to.
I can’t see this man’s eyes and I have no idea what awaits me aboard that ship.
The ship’s boat was now alongside the Ymrich. Ropes dropped down from the side. The guards who rowed us here firmly grabbed the lines and held tight while a ladder was lowered into the boat. The Symvoulos climbed up first.
“Alright now, your turn.” He called down to me. With sore arms, I hauled myself up the ladder. As I reached the top a hand stretched out for me, I put my grime caked fingers into the gloved hand of a guard. He pulled me up and looked at my hand in his. I’m sure he was thankful to be wearing gloves when he saw how filthy my hand was.
Once aboard I contemplated my surroundings. I had never been on a vessel larger than the row boat we came here on and most of what I saw was unknown to me besides the pieces that all boats had. Like the mast, the bow, the stern and the helm. Anyone who’s spent time on or near boats knows what those are. Everything else was foreign to my already limited knowledge.
I tried to take it all in, but the large crew bustling all about and the uncertainty of what was to come next was too overwhelming. The Symvoulos motioned for me to follow him. The two guards who had been with him on the island finished climbing aboard and went to shadow their master. With what seemed like no alternatives, I fell in line. I considered what options I did have, if I jumped from the ship and attempted to swim back to shore, my arms would likely give up in no time from already being over used in my fight. That’s if I made it to the railing before a guard caught me. What about the Symvoulos? From the stories, they possess ancient powers that allow them to see into the future, live longer than any other Atlantian and more. No doubt that’s how he’s known what I’ve been thinking, answering questions before I can ask them. Perhaps he is looking into the future now to see what I’ll do. I shake the nonsense from my head. It’s only stories. Not true… Right? Considering recent events I am no longer sure what is merely myth and what is true.
The crowd on the deck parts similarly to the way the crowd parted back on the island yet this time, the Symvoulos didn’t have to utter a word. The guards and I make our way across the ship, following the Symvoulos to the stern. He ascends a flight of stairs leading up to the helm. Upon reaching the upper deck I see more crew members scurrying about, mending boards, tying ropes and cleaning. There is room built into the back of the ship with another guard stationed at the door. The Symvoulos nodded to the guard who then opened the door. The Symvoulos stepped aside and motioned for me to enter before him. What a gentleman, hopefully he will be so kind when he hands me whatever punishment he feels I deserve.
I step into the chamber which is smaller than I expected, that’s when I noticed another set of doors in the middle of the back wall. This must just be his sitting room. There is a lush red couch on one side of the room that is covered in some material I’ve never seen before. It seems costly yet soft, I wouldn’t be opposed to curling up on it. On the other side is a desk that looks like it was intricately carved from a single tree that ceased to exist a millennia ago. There are two arm chairs sitting across from the desk and on the walls to either side are shelves upon shelves of books.
“Please, make yourself comfortable.” The Symvoulos gestures to the couch.
“Would you like something to eat or drink?” He sweeps his hand toward a nearby table that held several plates covered in what appeared to be cheese, fruits and various types of dried meat. I slowly nodded my head. One thing I’ve rarely passed up is food. When you live most of your life fighting for every crumb, it’s difficult to restrain yourself when there’s piles of it lying about.
“Wonderful. Let me serve you. Please, sit while I prepare a plate for you. I see no reason why you cannot eat something while we talk.” He must have finally removed his hood, I had been so busy staring at the food I almost didn’t notice. When he reached down toward the plate of food my eyes had been fixated on, the side of his face came into view.
I was immediately caught off guard, he was so much younger than I expected. His voice had been so calm with a tone of wisdom and age but, he couldn’t be more than a few years older than myself.
His skin was tanned although it appeared to be that way from having spent days on the sea, like myself. His features were lean and chiseled, almost like he was carved from stone. His auburn colored hair was loosely tied at the nape of his neck. He made himself busy piling food onto a plate while I continued to watch him. I realized I hadn’t blinked since he took off his hood and felt a little embarrassed.
I sank into the couch he pointed to earlier. He finished adding things to the plate and stood up to his full height in front of me. Now seeing his face full on I am in complete shock. He is so handsome. The only thing that remained of the man I met on the beach were his robes. Now I feel my cheeks flush as his eyes meet mine, they are the same color as the olives he put onto my plate. Wait, olives? I have only ever seen them a few times. Mistress Meghera had a gentleman friend that would bring them to her every so often. They always looked so good and we never had food that was worth eating. I tried to steal some once, however the Mistress had inventive ways of punishing us and I couldn’t walk for three days.
He brings the plate and sets it on a table sitting in front of me. I eye the food with suspicion.
“Please, eat. It’s not poisoned.” I am not mistaken when I see him wink as he pops an olive into his mouth. I am hesitant, but I haven’t truly eaten in days and my stomach is gnawing at me so I grab the closest thing I can on the plate. I put one of the olives into my mouth and as I clamp my teeth on it, my mouth explodes with flavor. No wonder Mistress never let us have them, I wouldn’t be likely to share them myself. I reach for more food when I see my hand and remember how filthy I am still. I pull my hand back when he Symvoulos jumps from his chair.
“I am a terrible host! I completely forgot the state you’re in. I have been so caught up in everything else I do apologize. Would you like to wash up a little? I can’t imagine the food is very appetizing with hands like that. Please, there is a wash basin there on that table. Take your time.” He pointed to a table in the corner. I pause, my body aches in muscles I didn’t know I had but I get up and walk to the basin.
It’s filled with water and there is a mirror on the wall in front of the table. I peer into the mirror and what I find looking back is like some kind of monster. Not the beautiful image of the scarred woman I saw in my dream.
My hair is plastered to my head and face in sections with dried seaweed sticking out everywhere. My face has caked on blood and some other type of dried liquid, probably whatever fluid that came from the creature’s eye. My hands are still covered in blood.
I dip my soiled hands into the basin and raise the water to my face trying to scrub away this day, this fear, all of it. I scrub my hands and go to rinse my face again. I feel a presence near me and glance to my right. The Symvoulos has brought me a dry cloth.
“I can only imagine what must be going through your mind right now.” He hands me the cloth, I take it from him and wipe my face first. I look in the basin and the once clear water is now as crimson as my hair. He walks back to his chair and sits down as I take my time drying my face.
“Tell me, what do you know of the Symvoulos?” He asked. I finish drying my face and hands and walk back to the couch I had been sitting on.
“I don’t know much about the Symvoulos,’ and what I do know comes from rumors or legends.” I keep my eyes down while I talk. I sit down, sinking a little farther into the couch than before. I had never sat on anything so comfortable and soft, I take my time enjoying this seemingly small luxury.
“I see. Well, I would still like to know. I can tell you’re nervous but, what I can’t determine is if it’s me that makes you anxious or if you’re still in shock from your fight with the beast. The latter of which I feel is justified. If it’s the former however, I’d like to understand why I make you uneasy as I doubt it’s my good looks alone.” He had taken on this casual air like he was trying to be my ally. I feel better now that my hands and face are clean, but he isn’t wrong about my nerves. I take a deep breath, attempting to calm myself.
“A Symvoulos is the royal adviser to the prince of their region.” I began. “Most stories are of their less than pleasant treatment of their prince’s subjects and their superhuman abilities.” This Symvoulos’ eyebrow rose in an amused way.
“Ahh, I had no idea I had ‘abilities’.” He was on the brink of laughter. I felt my face flush again from embarrassment.
“Please, go on.” He urged. What did it even matter?
“As I said, what I know is from what others in the village have told me and I have never had access to history books.” I try to defend myself. To be honest I never had access to any books. Kyria taught me to read knowing that reading and writing would give me an advantage in life.
“I see. Please tell me more about these abilities I’m said to have.” Now he is poking fun at me. I pull the cloak I had been given back at the beach tighter around me.
“I’m sorry. I don’t mean to tease you. I truly am interested in what your legends have taught you. Unfortunately, I have not heard of these so called powers. The information I have comes from the history books of Atlantis. Legends of the common folk fascinate me, to be truthful.” I looked into his olive green eyes and saw he wasn’t lying, and was strangely hungry again.
“So you don’t have super human powers?” I feel silly now having asked. He grins but tried to wipe it away with his hand.
“I hope that doesn’t disappoint you too much.” I suppose he couldn’t read my mind after all. His being able to read me was no more impressive than my ability to tell when someone lied to me, which was more of a highly practiced skill than a power. He must have spent a lot of time learning to know what people were thinking. No doubt it helped him to be of service to his Prince. Those then were two things we had in common, our learned abilities and fascination with legends.
“Don’t get me wrong, I do possess some very intriguing talents. I will have to show them to you some time.” He was grinning again and didn’t try to hide it. How could this cynical flirt hold the title to the most feared order in all of Atlantis? He reached forward from his seat to grab a slice of meat off the plate I left on the table.
“I’m not sure that what you would call a talent would be all that intriguing to me.” I am not feeling so anxious anymore. No in fact, the more he speaks the less anxious I feel. I’m borderline annoyed at this point. As he chews, his eyebrows raised ever so slightly in what looked like surprise at my retort.
“I supposed we will have to see. That can’t be the end of it.” He settles back in his chair.
“Well, the legends always varied on the abilities. Some it’s agelessness, others it’s the ability to read thoughts.”
“Ah, I see now why I have made you especially anxious. Although I am not able to read minds I do have the skill to read people and actions. No doubt you have come to conclude that yourself.” My eyes widen. It’s amazing how good he is at that. He laughs.
“Ha, see? It’s something I have learned over the years to do. It’s not as hard as you may think, learning to read people. It’s quite useful in my position.” I’m done talking at this point. I still have no idea why I am here and what he or his prince want with me.
“Well that’s where we differ I suppose. You read people so well and know what they are going to say before they say it. I on the other hand have no idea what you want with me and why you brought me here.” I’m not sure what has possessed me to be so candid, maybe it was his attempt at what seemed like trivial chitchat.
“In any case, my order must seem to be power-hungry tyrants to your village. I apologize for whatever my predecessors have done to cause this misconception among your people. And while I can only speak for myself, we are all held to a certain standard. As I said on the ride here, I serve as a spokesperson between my prince’s court and his faithful subjects. It wouldn’t do if I were running around disposing of everyone who didn’t do what I or the Prince likes. And as I told you earlier, I take my position very seriously. I have served with Prince Alcides for some time now and every order he hands down to me I carry out with the utmost care. I am an adviser to the Prince, as you said.” He sat straighter in his chair, “Granted, there have been times when decisions have been difficult to make with many possible outcomes, some of which are less than favorable. That is when I advise him and help him make the educated choice that best suits the whole of his people. I know there have been many times when my Prince and I have made choices that the people may not have understood completely and maybe the choice seemed cruel however, if they knew the whole truth they would likely see the choice made was for the best. So, now that we have cleared that up.” He sat forward in his seat, forearms resting on his knees, his palms pushed together.
“What do you know about The Offering?”
The Offering? Why would he bring that up? Of course I knew what it is, everyone did but again, it was from stories passed down.
“Our village has never been chosen for the Offering so anything I know will be from what the people have handed down from generations past.”
“That might be so, I still would like to know what the people of Sarochori are teaching their children about it.” He pushes himself back, placing his elbow on the arm of his chair and resting his chin on his closed fist. I knew the tale, and what a tale it was. Any young girl that wasn’t happy with her life wished she would be chosen for the Offering. I myself had dreamed about it as a girl, it was a fairy tale. I remember hearing it from Kyria when I was a girl,
long ago the Sea birthed seven beautiful gods. They were kind, just and powerful. The Sea named them Princes and gifted them each a part of itself to rule. Then the Sea saw that although the Princes were strong and capable, they were missing the compassion and love that was needed to be a balanced ruler. Recognizing this, the Sea chose a fair maiden from the Prince’s domain to be his Princess.
“She would be brave, strong, beautiful inside and out, worthy to be considered a complement to her region’s Prince. Once she was chosen, she was brought to live with the Prince in his sea palace and then rule his part of the sea with him for the rest of their days.” The Symvoulos couldn’t keep the smile off his face but this time, it felt genuine.
I had heard this story and played it over so many times in my mind it was like a part of my own memories. I’m not sure when I started speaking out loud but from look on his face, I can only assume I’ve been going on since the ‘fairytale’ parts.
“Well, I don’t know that I have ever heard it told that way, granted it is a lovely tale.” He said as he tried to wipe the smile from his mouth. “However, I will admit there is a small grain of truth buried beneath your story.”
“It is not my story! It’s the tale I was told as a child, that we were all told. We had nothing else to believe in.” I was embarrassed and irritated that he was suggesting I invented this story up from my own fantasies. His tone changed from taunting to soothing.
“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to imply that you made it up. I simply meant the story you told.” His face looked concerned, like he really was sorry. He leaned forward in his seat again and looked directly into my eyes. The look was intense and I felt like I might not be able to look away.
“Would you like to know the truth?” The truth? As far as I knew that was the truth. However, I suppose it would be better to know the actual history behind The Offering. I nodded my head although I was still confused about what this had to do with me.
“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’ve brought up the Offering and what it might have to do with you.” He’s done it again. I don’t believe what he says, he’s reading my mind.
“First let me tell you the history behind the Offering and then I promise, things will begin to make sense.” Finally, I was going to get some answers. “As I said, the tale you heard as a child is not too far from the truth. However, it is the fairytale version.” He began,
“What you know as the Sea was actually the first King of Atlantis, King Mare. Mare means Sea in the old language. King Mare had five sons, all equal in wisdom and strength. His first born was Atlantikos who he names after our world, Atlantis. His second born was Pakipika, Hindiin, his third, Arktisk his fourth and then Eugh his fifth son.
The king had been training his sons to replace him for when the day came that he would no longer be able to rule Atlantis. However, watching them grow into men, he realized how difficult it would be for just one of them to rule all of Atlantis alone. He decided to divide the kingdom into four regions giving his sons dominion over each. The king named each region after the son that would rule it.
At first all seemed well as the king was grooming his sons to rule without him. Although, as the King grasped his own mortality, he realized the need for his sons to have heirs of their own. Just like King Mare took a wife, his sons too would need wives and heirs to continue their reign of Atlantis. So then came the question: Who would be worthy to rule alongside the Sons of Atlantis?” I hung on every word as the Symvoulos recounted the history of Atlantis and the Offering. To hear it told as fact rather than lore was incredible. He continued,
“The King was very clear that his sons needed capable and wise women to rule alongside them. He also knew that the task of finding suitable princesses couldn’t be left to the still inexperienced Princes. He had been a young man once and knew that when young men are left to their own devices, their perceptions can become deluded by pretty words and prettier faces. And so, the Offerings by Trial were born. The king created a set of daunting trials that even those with the most skill would find arduous. In his mind, this would weed out those who wouldn’t survive the challenging life of a leader. Several women competed and only one came out a Princess.
Of course, the Trials have not been held in centuries.
Now times have changed, and so has Atlantis. So now we come to our generation. As you know we have seven seas, not four. There were times when twins were born to a region and both were considered to be the rightful heir, so in order to keep peace the domain was split, North and South. This was the first unspoken rule that was done away with. Obviously continually splitting the kingdoms wasn’t feasible. The births went on to be better recorded and so should there be multiple births, the child born first was marked in the Archives of Atlantis so to seal his, or her rulership.” Unintentionally, my head listed to the side at the mention of the word ‘her’.
“I see that is a new idea to you. We will have to get you some history books so you may be informed of the kingdom you are a part of.” He reclined slightly in his chair.
“Yes, there have been times when a Princess was born first and so she was the predetermined ruler of her birth region. Many of the regions who practice some of the ‘Old Ways’, still enforce that only male heirs may rule. However, South Pakipika and Arktisk are both currently ruled by Princesses. Both regions have been dominated by fierce warrior she-clans for generations. Something in their blood I suppose makes most of their firstborn children females. Or so it’s believed. Not that it matters, most refuse to interfere with their affairs.
So now we come to the Offering by Trial. For many generations these trials were upheld. In fact, Arktisk and Eugh do still carry on the tradition of the Offering by Trials. However after a time, King Mare’s descendants were not too devoted to keeping up with the tradition of the trials as being a means choosing a co-ruler. Many felt it left too much up to chance and that it was a barbaric way to determine who could be a suitable complement for the region’s ruler.
And so, a new era began in which the fair maiden, or in some cases fair gentleman was not chosen by competing in the trials but was chosen by bloodline and lottery. They are born to one of the noble households of the wealthy townships of the region.” I hadn’t noticed because I was completely engrossed in what the Symvoulos was saying, that my whole body was inclined toward him. Almost to the point of being able to comfortably rest my arms on the table in front of me.
“When a Prince or Princess was born to a region, the noble families would begin grooming their children that were close in age to the future ruler in hope they might be chosen in the lottery to rule alongside the heir to the region. These young nobles know the laws and the ways of their region from birth. They also have an excellent knowledge of their region’s history. So that is how the Offering is handled today.” I was fascinated by the truth to the legend I knew as a child. I was so absorbed in the details, staring at the wall of books behind the Symvoulos and before I knew it I was thinking aloud,
“I have never heard of the lottery. That’s not surprising. Our village is penniless. No noble families have ever lived on our island. I wonder if anyone in Sarochori even knows the truth. Or if they told us the tale to give us hope. If only from noble families ones were chosen as possible co-rulers, then what chance would any of us ever have?” I brought my gaze back to the Symvoulos when I realized I had been sharing my thoughts audibly, he was watching me intently with his hand cupping his chin.
“Perhaps that was your people’s small way of not allowing every aspect of their lives in Sarochori to be so unpleasant.
So now you know the true history of The Offering and how it is handled today. I’m sure you’re still wondering why I’ve brought you here and better yet, what all of this has to do with you.” He’s right and although I am appreciative of learning the truth of my world, I am anxious about what my fate will be. He rests his elbows on the chair’s arms again, interlacing his fingers.
“The King’s decrees are royal law and they cannot be changed. There have been times when new laws were voted on and counteracted some of the laws that the King put into place however, there had to be a unanimous vote among the seven regions in order to enact that type of new law. Since Arktisk and Eugh were not in accord to stop the Offering by Trials like the rest of the regions were, the Trials could not be outlawed. That being said, there was no law stating that the regions who did not wish to conduct the Trials were required to. So, the regions started their new way of conduction the Offering.” I really hope that he will be getting to the point soon, I still don’t know what the King’s laws and the Trials have to do with me. I killed that beast, I should be rewarded for doing away with a monstrous and ferocious creature. I have done nothing else that would draw attention to myself.
“However, the King’s law stated that once the Trials began, they could only be finished when a co-ruler was crowned the victor. Would you like to know what the first Trial was in the King’s original Offering?” He used the arm rests of his chair now to push himself forward in his seat so his eyes were directly in line with mine and his face looked like he had some terrible secret to tell me. My own face I knew was filled with terror as my mind raced with the realization before he said it.
“Killing a Wannapaign.”
Read the next chapter here!