No family has ruled Aquaria more than the Gills but, in the early 1500s, the royal Gill family bore only daughters. Even the less legitimate lines of Gill ancestry failed to produce any male heirs and, unlike the nations above water, only kings can rule the submarine. For almost five hundred years since, not a single crown beneath the water’s surface has graced the head of a Gill. Although they weren’t official monarchs, the family retained some forms of power in the many shires within the Aquarian Domes. The longer the fishfolk went without a leader from the great dynasty, the more new ruling dynasties began to fear the Gills. With assassinations and excomunications, the dictators of Aquaria did their best to erase the name from the ocean floor and they nearly succeeded.
In 1979, the Gills almost met their end. A group of their own guardsmen, paid off by the new King Lianghow Hiyan, set fire to their estate. All of the elders and parents died. Only four managed to escape: one young man and three children. Of the two youngest, one was a little baby girl named Cassandra – not yet a year old – and the other was her cousin named Paud – who was only four and would later become one of the Mystakle Samurai. Of the two older ones, the younger was a boy named Nerthruk, who was nine, and the other was named Machuba Gill and was thirteen. Clever enough to keep their identity a secret, Machuba guided them to the safety of a religious orphanage in Aidaros.
The next year something so peculiar, so ironic, happened that it made many stubborn hearts see the light of Barro. King Lianghow had no son. Since he had taken the throne, the royal advisors constantly asked who he would designate to follow him as king. Too afraid of betrayal, even from his own family, he decided to adopt a child rather than pick a cousin or nephew. As the sickest of jokes fate has ever pulled, King Lianghow chose Machuba and, of course, the boy would not go without his cousin and siblings.
– – –
“How did Lianghow not recognize them?” Joe was so horrified he blurted the question before stopping to think – this wasn’t Ekaf or Zalfron he was interrupting. He added, “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to interrupt!”
“Do not be afraid to ask questions, Sheenshong Joe,” Sidon raised his palms to assure Joe that there was no offense taken, “this story is told for your understanding. As for your question: no one knew what the children looked like. No one knew their names. The Gills kept the very existence of their children secret because they knew of the potential for assassination.”
“What about the traitors?” Zalfron asked, “Didn’t they know bout the kids?”
“They knew there were children, but not how many, how old, nor even their names. Only the most trusted guards were allowed to protect the children, and rightly so, for if not the Gill orphans would have never escaped.” Sidon explained.
“And da bad guards told da King der be no servivors,” Nogard added, “even dough dey never saw dem all die, dey weren’t about to report udderwise.”
“Did the kids know Lianghow was behind the murder of their family?” Joe asked.
“Not at first but as they grew up they figured it out.” Sidon said, “The night of the fire, they had almost been captured but Paud Gill, the four year old, bit off the finger of a guard. This man became Lianghow’s most trusted cronie, obtaining a job defending the king’s own security, and the four kids saw him often but never recognized him thanks to the glove that he wore which made it appear as though he had all his digits. Now, shall I proceed?”
“Yes sir, please do!”
– – –
The Gill family wasn’t the only threat to the throne. By this point, the government was despised by the people. Every decision made was designed only to improve the quality of life for the rich and powerful rather than that of the majority. Lianghow Hiyan was well aware of the widespread disapproval but rather than attempting reform he sought to strengthen the foundation of the corruption, eliminating opposition and reviving a positive public opinion, under the guise of nationalism.
Lianghow got lucky. After a series of murders in Men, a town on the border of North and South Aquaria, there was a stand off between the town police and the group responsible. Many police died, as did many more civilians. All in all, fifty souls had been sent to Solaris, not including the five belonging to the causes of the violence. The crimes were committed by a group of necromancers and, though the bodies were never seen by the public, the police claimed the perpetrators were mermen. These facts fit with the public assumptions and were not questioned. There were few mancers in North Aquaria, even fewer out of the closet, for they shunned the art much like the world did above them. South Aquaria, which was ruled by the mermen who called their land Mirkweed, was another story. They didn’t have the connections to the surface that the fishfolk had – they didn’t want it. Their culture had been untainted by anything foreign for far longer than the fishfolk and thus their perception of mancy was far different. They saw it as just another form of magic, just as capable of evil as the next, and, consequently, one third of their population practiced some form of mancy.
Just as the fishfolk despised mancy, they despised mermen. The hatred trickled down over the ages from a source that the common man could not identify but it was reinforced in every other generation by fruitless wars declared and designed for the benefit of the elites. This hatred became the only common link between the aristocracy and the citizens of North Aquaria. The Men Massacre made it hard for even those that opposed such racism to deny the need to respond to their troublesome neighbors to the south.
Plus, in 1979, the Queen of Mirkweed, Maylee Laroc, died and, before her young son could ascend, the once loyal General Yaimon Ren staged a military coup. He and his soldiers took control of South Aquaria. Not only did he openly condemn the government of the north, but he was a shadowmancer. When the self-proclaimed “Men Murder Boys” were busted in 1980, even if the necromancers weren’t fishfolk, even if Yaimon Ren wasn’t behind it, with a bit of propaganda it became easy to believe. Not a week after the massacre, King Lianghow Hiyan declared war on Mirkweed.
The guard that had betrayed the Gill family, the guard that then got a job in the king’s personal circle, now got the job of Chanjung General – the head of the North Aquarian Military. Initially he was successful. His men forced their way into the Wobniar Woods and made it to the merman capital, Coraljen, before facing a single setback. After a year, the Chanjung General was hungry to have at least one merman city under his control, even if he couldn’t take the capital. So he divided his troops and led a regiment against Sanction in the south east. In 1982, they took the city which soon became their strongest outpost in South Aquaria. They wouldn’t have been able to take the city if Yaimon Ren and his men hadn’t been late. They arrived after the city had been raised. Yaimon was furious but he had his troops hide in the coral and wait for the opportune moment. After stamping out all resistance in Sanction, leaving many troops behind to maintain control, the Chanjung General hit the road to return to the battlefields outside of Coraljen. On his way, Yaimon Ren and the forces that were supposed to have stopped them from taking Sanction descended upon the fishfolk regiment and the general was captured.
– – –
“The Changjung Generl is Lacitar!” Zalfron was so excited at the idea that the words exploded from his lips, “Ain’t he?”
“Lacitar Te-Naryt, you are correct.” Even Sidon couldn’t help but grin at the delighted expression of the elf.
Joe was thankful Zalfron had interrupted, he had been holding back a question of his own, “What’s the difference between the fishfolk and the mermen?”
Licking his eyes, Siden slipped his shoulders out from his tunic and let the blouse fold over the belt at his waist. After whispering a spell, the neon tattoos that laced his chest faded until only his skin was visible. He spun around, slowly, so that Joe could see his chest and back. His back was a deep blue compared to the lighter, almost sky blue, shade of his belly.
“Mermen have dark backs and pale fronts.” Sidon explained.
“But I thought you were a fishfolk.” Joe stated.
The gathered crowd chuckled quietly at this.
“The only true difference is cultural.” Sidon gestured to some of the females sitting around them, “If you look at our women, who we keep inside, you will see that they are colored more like the fishfolk. If I were to stay inside, I too would lose some of my darkness, but just as the pale skinned races of the surface tan, so do we on the ocean floor. And over the years, those who tanned easier or were merely born with darker backs survived to reproduce more often among the mermen. Even if the light of Solaris never touched my skin, I would still be darker than my fishfolk kin.”
“Why’d the difference come about?”
“The fishfolk of the north were the first to live under Aquarian Domes. The mermen of the south avoided such a life for centuries. Beneath the domes, man is the apex predator. There, one’s complexion was not a factor in natural selection. In the open water, man is nothing but another link on the food chain. A dark back helps swimming mermen blend in when a predator is looking from above and the light belly does the same from predators lurking below.”
Joe was impressed, “Yall know about evolution, about natural selection?”
Sidon smiled, “It is common sense, is it not?”
“True.” Joe nodded.
– – –
Machuba and Nerthruk begged their adopted father to let them join the war and, after Nerthruk’s thirteenth birthday, King Lianghow Hiyan consented (later he would find that one of Machuba’s female friends had gotten pregnant before he left but by the time he found out the child had already been born and Machuba had already been deployed). The two boys went first to Fort Gonchi where they exelled in training and were sent to the front lines in 1984. When they passed through the Submarine Canyon, a long crack in the ocean floor that goes about half the distance from Fort Gonchi to Coraljen, mermen attacked their convoy and those that survived were forced to flee into the Wobniar Woods – and this was before the Dome that sits over the canyon and much of the woods was built.
The two oldest Gill boys would’ve been swallowed by a sumarii, torn apart by a shamoo, or impaled by a spear-toothed ray if they hadn’t been saved by a shell-masked, dark skinned fishfolk known to all Aquarian children as the mysterious warrior, the super hero, the deity: Sidon (he was, ofcourse, a merman but the North Aquarians believed him to be a fishfolk). Their savior brought them to his layer, Shelmick’s Stronghold, hidden in the coral jungle, and introduced them to a merman boy a year older than Machuba named Leord Laroc. Leord was the only child of Maylee Laroc and the rightful heir to the throne of Mirkweed. The masked fishfolk, merman prince, and the rest of those gathered in the secret pocket within the polyps were collectively known as the Soldiers of Shelmick. They’d been planning to sneak within the blockaded capital to assassinate Yaimon Ren and, with Leord as the new king, bring peace to all of Aquaria. The two boys were offered a place in that mission and they eagerly accepted.
Everything went according to plan except that Yaimon Ren escaped and fled the city. Leord came before the mermen soldiers of Coraljen, who by then were near starvation from the months spent under siege, and they listened to him. Dropping their weapons, they opened the gates. The fishfolk expected a trap but were met by Machuba, Nerthruk, Sidon, and a freed Lacitar Te-Naryt who all assured them that Mirkweed, with the true king on the throne, would do the north no harm. To top it all off, Machuba had been cut during their raid. His blood, due to the Curse of the Gills, was made of molten steel unlike that of the mermen and fishfolk. Not only did the people see them as the King’s adopted sons and as saviors of their Chanjung General, but now they saw them as the remnants of the beloved Gill family. That day, North Aquaria fell in love with the four orphans who could now drop the surname Hiyan and reclaim the name of their ancestors: Gill.
– – –
Zalfron jumped in, “So yer tellin mae that yer part god?”
“No.” Sidon’s tone told them this was not a laughing matter, “I am telling you that many people believe I am a deity, just as many believe me to be a fishfolk.”
“Sidon was a character from an Aquarian fairy tale-”
“JANWE!” Yiangu shot up from where he sat to scowl at his brother.
“Yiangu, pingjing ne-tsuji.” Sidon calmly rebuked Yiangu then continued speaking once the man sat back down, “My parents were hard people. They raised me to see that the world was violent and corrupt and that there was no one to defend me but myself. That what the politicians and the wealthy claimed was not true. My experiences growing up validated this and it haunted me.”
Again, an excited Janwe interjected, “So he donned the shell mask of his favorite fairy tale, he-”
This time Sidon cut the two off by merely raising his palms, “I decided to become my hero and, in doing so, I became a hero to many others. Every man and woman here shares that dream and shares that role of hero.”
“Seeeluuu…” Zalfron’s jaw nearly hit the floor.
“Any question regarding the story before I continue?” Sidon asked.
Joe spoke up, “How’d the king respond to finding out that he’d adopted the survivors of the very family he’d attempted to eliminate?”
“He began to fear them.” Sidon answered, “The people praised the four Gills as if they were characters much like the one I strive to embody. The people even began to soften towards the mermen seeing the Gill’s friendship with Leord. Without a war to distract them, Lianghow feared that soon his people would be ready for him to die and pass down the throne.”
“Ah bet Langhow was madder than a banshae in a buffet with that Lacitar!” Zalfron cackled.
“Oh, he was.” Sidon assured him, “Lianghow publically humiliated Lacitar under the guise that Lacitar had cooperated with Yaimon while in captivity. This action threatened to destroy Lianghow, half of the people loved Lacitar at this time, but the king redeemed himself by giving Machuba the position of Changjung General. He quietly moved Lacitar to Vice Jeencha General, second in command of the police, which reinforced the people’s belief that Lacitar had not been a traitor and that Lianghow was a horrible king. But Lianghow could not expel Lacitar, his most trusted (and dirty) servant, he needed Lacitar incase the Gills manifested a legitimate threat. Which it seemed they might, because not long after the end of the war, to make matters worse, one of Lianghow’s wives became pregnant.”
“No way!” Joe and Zalfron exclaimed.
“It wasn’t his kid.” Sidon said, “Lianghow knew this but the people didn’t and he sought to keep it that way. He was determined to be replaced by someone who bore his own name. But that is when the Soldiers and I began promoting the idea of an election. Fear once again gripped Lianghow and he put Lacitar on the task of making the people abandon the idea of democracy.”
“How’d hae manage that?” Zalfron asked.
“He needed to trick the people that a vote was not what they wanted. So he hosted a fake election,” Sidon said, “a vote for a vote, he called it. If the people wanted to vote, then all they had to do was vote for it. If more than two thirds of the population didn’t vote, then there would be no election.”
“But Lacitar picked the people who counted the votes.” Janwe sighed, ignoring the fiery glare his brother shot from across the room.
“We believe at least half of North Aquaria voted that day,” Sidon said, “but Lacitar reported less than an eighth.”
“I remember hearin bout dis,” Nogard smiled, “Dis started riots!”
“Those who had been leary of Lacitar, now outright opposed him. They lumped him in amongst the other politicians. These riots weren’t just against Lacitar, but also against their king. Once again, Lianghow turned to Lacitar, after all, the original vote had been his idea. Lacitar begged Lianghow not to give in to the mob’s demands. He argued that a large minority still supported him and ridiculed the radical acts of protest. Lacitar promised that he had a solution in the making. Lianghow resisted as long as he could but by the end of the year he succumbed. He scheduled another vote for the Spring of 1986 only to have it canceled when Lacitar’s plans came to fruition…”
– – –
As Vice Jeencha General, Lacitar delt with pirates on a regular basis. The most powerful of these smuggling gangs was the Aquarian Sea Lords led by the beautiful Ching Shih. After capturing the pirate captain, Lacitar offered to release her if she would have her men attack Sanction – which the mermen had agreed to let the fishfolk keep – but make it out to look like they’d been paid by Leord. The mermen hadn’t neglected to comment on the Rigging Riots, Leord himself claimed to be considering democracy as he explicitly sympathized with the rioters. Lianghow and the elites that supported the monarchy had begun to gossip of the possibility that the rioters might flee to Mirkweed, organize, and invade North Aquaria as rebels. Aware of this, Lacitar sought to create another Men Massacre. She refused, knowing her men would soon break her out, but she told Lacitar she knew of someone that would work with him on this sort of scheme. This man would meet him on the northern most Dragon Island.
At this time, five years before the Pirate Wars began, the Order of Mancers was divided into hundreds of factions that rose and fell and combined and split with the weather. The ex-general turned king, Yaimon Ren, had managed to gain the loyalty of a quite a few land-lubbers in the Order of Mancers’ Dragon Islands. This was how Ching Shih knew of his whereabouts. It was through Yaimon that she obtained the materials necessary to convert individuals into mancy, materials which she smuggled into anti-mancer areas like North Aquaria. Though he and Lacitar had been enemies, both saw the benefit that an alliance could offer. Lacitar arrested thousands of rioters. Those who seemed weak-willed, those that had contributed to the chaos not out of civil unrest but for pure joy, he forcibly converted into mancy, convicted them of mancy, then provided them with an ultimatum: execution or Dragon Islands. By the end of the year, Lacitar and Yaimon were ready.
During a Spring fishfolk festival in 1986, on April 3rd, a day that would forever be remembered as Shu Tin, or Blood Day, Yaimon and his troops, wearing shell-masks, slaughtered hundreds of civilians celebrating in the town square of Sanction. It was no coincidence that the Jeencha General had been there that night and died in the violence, making Lacitar Te-Naryt head of the police. Lacitar demanded Leord Laroc give them the whereabouts of the Soldiers of Shelmick’s hideout so that he could have them tried for the crime. When Leord refused, claiming it was a set up, even rightly guessing that Yaimon Ren was behind it, King Lianghow Hiyan declared war and told the people that an election would have to wait until there was the peace and safety in which to do so.
– – –
“But even if it was yall,” Joe complained, “how could they attack the mermen?”
“They claimed we were a group of radical merman supremacists, as the attackers had been mancers, and that we were probably encouraged to do so by Leord considering his rhetoric about the Rigging Riots.” Sidon answered.
“Ah thought they thought yall were fishfolk?” Zalfron asked.
“They think we are fishfolk when they like us.” Janwe jumped in to explain, “And call us mermen when they don’t.”
“And technically, they didn’t declare war on South Aquaria, on Mirkweed, they declared war on us.”
“But they still invaded, didn’t they?” Zalfron asked.
“But Machuba Gill was your friend!” Joe exclaimed.
“Yes and he refused to obey Lianghow’s orders. Lianghow locked him up and gave Lacitar control of the military and the police.”
“Woulda been aesier to jus hand em the farakin crown!” Zalfron remarked.
“Did the mermen refuse to fight?” Joe asked.
“Leord was reluctant for the first month but the fishfolk thought it a guise because Yaimon Ren’s faux-Sidons continued to terrorize civilians every other week. After a month, Lacitar abandoned all civility with the support of the misled majority.”
“Wait…” Joe was half in awe and half disgusted, “did they start targeting regular mermen?”
“Indeed.” Sidon sighed, “They destroyed many merman buildings and killed many mermen, claiming it was all in order to eliminate us – the violent extremists that we were. And when mermen, unaffiliated with this hidden castle, lashed out in frustration at these foreign invaders, they were considered my affiliates.”
“Did they find yall?” Joe asked.
“No,” Sidon shook his head, “we turned ourselves in.”
– – –
After a few months of the violence, the Soldiers of Shelmick turned themselves in. Each hour Lacitar executed another soldier, publically, from sun rise to sun down. All the while, he tortured Sidon, demanding he provide the names of the members that had not come forward and promising him death only when he snitched. Sidon swore there were no others but still the attacks on fishfolk by masked mancers continued. They had long since left the annexed city of Sanction. By Summer, Yaimon and his fiends carried out attacks throughout North Aquaria. They bombed temples and burned schools, they kidnapped children and sold them like animals. Though it worked to his favor, this had not been a part of the plan Lacitar had discussed – the attacks were to stay out of North Aquaria. From the beginning, both Lacitar and Yaimon planned to betray each other. Neither wanted the other to rule Mirkweed nor North Aquaria. Thus, Yaimon broke the rules of the secret agreement and truly became the terrorist organization that Lianghow had declared war upon.
Without Lacitar’s help, Yaimon realized that his gang couldn’t stand a chance against a full sized nation. In desperation, he made a fatal mistake. In his shell-mask, he broke into the dungeon in Aidaros and freed Sidon in hopes the masked vigilante that he had imitated would now side with him. As soon as he was unshackled, Sidon killed Yaimon and the mancers he’d brought with him. He escaped from the prison with the body and left it in the street so that the next day the people saw the corpse of the man they had come to recognize as Sidon and realized that it was Yaimon Ren. The people didn’t know what to make of this. Sidon should have stuck around to explain but Lacitar Te-Naryt did instead.
He claimed that Leord Laroc had been in favor of Yaimon Ren’s coup after the death of his mother. When it seemed the mermen were doomed to fall to the fishfolk, Yaimon maneuvered for Leord to take the throne and Yaimon to disappear disguised as the masked vigilante. The two Gill boys weren’t saved by a hero named Sidon but instead captured by the tyrant named Yaimon and they turned on their people to join the vile plot. But the Gills had one condition: if all went well in South Aquaria, then the next plot would be to put them on the throne of North Aquaria. Gills, just like any other dynastic family, insatiably lusted for the crown. When the people failed to comply, the conspirators orchestrated riots until they lost their patience on April 3rd, 1986. Those who argued against this logic were quickly silenced, accused of mancy and never heard from again. The skeptical learned to keep their mouths shut and the majority, as if only years before they hadn’t worshipped the ground he stood upon, hooped and hollered as Machuba Gill was beheaded on July 7th.
Before this, Leord Lorac had only been willing to defend his nation, he hadn’t entertained the idea of much more but the death of Machuba and the blasphemy of Lacitar drove him mad. He announced that the war would not end until Lacitar, Lianghow, and anyone in league with them, were dead.
The rest of the Gills had been in hiding since Machuba was first arrested. Nerthruk led what remained of his family to Shelmick’s Stronghold, but disappeared – never to return to the Aquarian Ocean again – after his brother’s execution. The women, the wives of the Soldiers of Shelmick, had run the castle in Sidon’s absence and took care of the other Gills. Paud and Cassandra Gill stayed for a year but eventually had to leave. Cassandra’s curse pained her too much to stay. Paud found her a hiding spot within the Wobniar Woods then saw to it that she felt as little pain as possible until the day that she died. Machuba’s wife died but her son, the one she bore when Machuba went off to war, survived. His name was Machuba Gill Juji and he was the only Gill to still be there when Sidon returned.
Leord Laroc held out until the year 1990. To save the people of Coraljen from starving in another siege, he snuck out of the city, delivering his family to safety, then surrendered to Lacitar. He was beheaded but the war was not over. Though many of the mermen left, traveling west into the Dragon Gulf then south around the tip of Iceload’s Azunu to settle along the Frosted Coast, the majority of the mermen fought to their deaths. Even today bands of merman continue to harass the fishfolk as they attempt to raise their Aquarian Domes over wide expanses of the Wobniar Woods.
Lianghow was killed by a wife in 1995, his only son was assassinated a year prior. Lacitar Te-Naryt took the King’s place – even took the king’s wife. By then, almost all the fishfolk had heard something of the truth, though many wrote it off as rumors spread by a people unhappy with their current monarch. Most followed their dictator’s rules or were struck down by the swift, unforgiving blade of Lacitar’s executioners. If someone were to ask Lacitar about the vote that was promised them after the war was over, then the King would remind them that the war wasn’t yet finished. In the words of Lacitar Te-Naryt, “As long as there are mermen, there are Soldiers of Shelmick, and as long as there are Soldiers of Shelmick, the fishfolk of Aquaria are not safe.”
– – –
After absorbing all this information, Joe was left with only one question.
“How’d they get ahold of Machuba Gill Juji?”
“Enough people in Sanction had come to see the truth.” Sidon began, “They’d kept their enlightened view quiet enough that Lacitar’s men hadn’t heard.” He returned to his spot at the inner circle and sat back down as he continued, “The people of Sanction hosted a protest, a march on the streets much in the style of the spirits led by Brahim Phinn during the reign of the Bishopry. Lacitar responded by ordering the governor to block all roads to and from the city – to starve the people back into submission. Though I discouraged him from going, Machuba believed that the people of Sanction were ready to rebel – to take it a step further than peaceful protest – but merely too afraid to move forward by themselves. Wearing a shell-mask, he traveled to Sanction as Sidon.”
“The mob received him with fervor and he led them to the main gate where he demanded the governor show himself. He told the governor that the people of Sanction could rule themselves. ‘Not as long as I live!’ the governor snarled. ‘Then let us fight to the death!’ Machuba responded. And they did. Machuba won but the people were scared. The troops that surrounded the city picked up their weapons when they saw the governor hit the ground. Whether or not they would have attacked those people, we will never know, but the people bowed and left only Machuba standing. When the soldiers approached, he did not resist. He went with them peacefully.”
“Where are they taking him?” Joe asked.
“To Aidaros, to Lacitar.” Sidon said.
“What will they do with him?”
“They will try him, then Lacitar will cut off his head.”
Joe bit his lip. He trusted Sidon. He believed this story. But can I fight? Can I kill? Can wasn’t the right question. Should I? Nogard’s hand clasped Joe’s shoulder. Looking back at his friend, he saw a solemn expression the chicken dragon had not shown before. Joe’s eyes fell to the sword in his lap. His friend will die without the Suikii…the last Gill, hunted just because of who has born…Joe nodded to himself then looked back into Sidon’s dark eyes.
“I will help you save Machuba,” he said, “but I will not kill.”
“We take only those lives that we must.” Sidon assured Joe and Joe believed him.