Chapter 3 – A World of Small Changes
The whale-drawn carriages were waiting just outside the palace entrance. The chauffeurs straightened up when it finally seemed like their passengers were ready to leave, but then slumped back down in impatience when another figure held back their passengers for a final goodbye hug.
"Hey, little sister, you're hugging me like there's no tomorrow!" Elemmirre patted the top of Momo's head. "I'm not going that far away."
"What?" Momo drew back in disbelief. "Elly, the North Atlantic ocean is halfway across the world! How's that not far away?"
"Then maybe I'll need another hug for the road."
Once all the goodbyes were said and done, Elemmirre and Luria each entered their own carriages and within moments, disappeared into the distance. Momo lingered at the entrance, staring at the empty skies. The servants retreated back inside after many assurances from the young princess that she would be fine. Toshiro stayed beside her in thoughtful silence.
"I only just got back and they're already gone," Momo finally whispered. She hugged her body even though it felt as warm as a summer afternoon. "I know they have to go…I just wish my timing wasn't so horrible!"
"It's always hard to say goodbye to someone you love," Toshiro replied. His tone was more guarded than usual; something that didn't escape Momo's ears. This perked her curiosity, but she resisted the urge to pry. He had his own past, as did she, so she did nothing but silently agree with him.
"Come on. Let's go somewhere," Momo said, tugging Toshiro forward. "Aha! I know! I'll take you to Rangiku's place. Then I'll show you around the markets. I haven't taken you there yet."
"Wait a minute, Momo, don't you need to tell someone? No offense, but your father seems like the overly-protective type."
"Don't let him hear you say that or your tail might get charred. On the bright side, if that happens then I'll know what a charred merman smells like!"
"On the bright side?"
Momo giggled and tugged him along, stopping briefly to inform a guard of their plans. He saluted them off as they swam out into the opulent city of Merticia. The plaza was bustling with life. Stalls had sprung out of the ground and a sea of pleasant aromas wafted from their interiors. Young merchildern and their equally juvenile familiars chased each other around the fountain. Though she was recognised by everybody, Momo had no difficulties in going about her own business.
"They aren't surprised to see you out in the open like this?" Toshiro asked as Momo said her goodbyes to a passerby.
"No. Why would they be? I've been wandering the streets of Merticia since I was little."
"Really? Isn't your father the protective type? He lets you wander around unescorted?" Toshiro thought back to the royal families of the land. If any of them were to step out into their kingdoms, the citizens would fall over in shock and scramble to put on a display of excessive respect. But it was rare for any person of royalty to even step beyond the confines of their palace without a proper escort. Kidnappings and ransoms were not uncommon.
"Father's only protective if we uh…go up to the surface. Don't get me started on what happens if we mingled with humans," she trailed off sheepishly. "Anyway, other than that, he's pretty much as fine as a parent can be when it comes to his daughters going around town. Ever since my father banished and sealed a great evil a hundred years ago, transgressions are basically nonexistent. We don't have to worry about being attacked or anything. The seas are in a time of peace and tranquillity."
"A hundred years ago?" Upon the land people said that mermaids lived incredibly long lives. Growing up, Toshiro never believed it. Mermaids were just fantasy creatures; a being of one's imagination. Until now that was. Now he was just curious. "Just how long do mermaids live?"
"Longer than you humans, that's for sure."
"So, how old are you really-OW! H-hey, what was that for?" Toshiro exclaimed as he rubbed the spot where he was just slapped.
"Hmph! Think I'm old enough to be your grandmother? Think again, mister! I'm only seventeen," Momo replied, basking in the glory of her youth. "Mermaids age by the year until about twenty or so; then it begins to slow."
"Of course," Toshiro mumbled.
"Wow! Look at these!" Momo swam over to one of the merchants. Flowers of all shapes and colours covered the entire stand. Momo fingered a purple five-petal flower that reminded Toshiro of lily. It was glossed with a pearl-like sheen.
"Good afternoon, Princess," the merchant called out. "We just got those in today. They've bloomed beautifully this year."
"I'll say," Momo agreed. "But don't these normally bloom a few weeks later, when it's warmer over in Hail? And there aren't any velders…Don't they bloom in the Indian Ocean around this time as well?"
"Yes, it's strange. From what my suppliers have told me, there have been some unusually cold currents running through the Indian, while the Antarctic has been warmer than usual. It's nothing major; just unusual, that's all. Oh, I'll be with you in a moment, madam," the merchant called over his shoulder. "Can I help you with anything, Princess?"
"No. I have to go now anyway, but I'll pick some flowers up when I return. Can you save me one of these snow lilies and a cinaeco?" she asked, pointing to the pearly purple flower and a dainty bunch of what looked like blue daffodils.
"My pleasure. Have a good day, Princess."
As they swam away, Toshiro's head was filled with nothing but the jargon he didn't understand. Hail? Velders? It was easy enough to guess that the first was the name of a town and the second was the name of a flower, but he wanted to know more. Until a few days ago, he never would have imagined a whole separate world existing right next to his.
"Hey, tell me a little about the underwater world."
"What do you want to know?"
"Everything, I suppose, but let's start with some geography. I'm guessing Merticia isn't the only underwater city?"
Momo nodded. "That's right. Each of the eight oceans-"
"Eight oceans?" Toshiro echoed in disbelief. "I thought there were only seven: the north and south Atlantic, the north and south Pacific, the Indian, the Arctic and the Antarctica."
"Which of those oceans do you think we're in right now?" Momo challenged. "No, there are eight oceans. We're in the Meridian Ocean right now. Merticia is the capital of the Meridian Ocean."
"I swear all the maps that I've seen only named seven oceans. I've never even heard of the Meridian Ocean."
"The merpeople hide themselves pretty well." Momo shrugged her shoulders before continuing. "Anyway, each of the eight oceans has their own capital. There are other minor villages in each ocean, but they're far and few in between. The capital of the North Pacific is called Shu – that's where my elders sister, Michie, is right now – and the capital of the South Pacific is called Heon, which is where I'll be going in a few years time."
Burning with curiosity, Toshiro opened his mouth but promptly closed it when Momo gave him a look that said: I'll answer that later! Let me finish first!
"Now Astraia is in Da'Ravenne-gora, which is the capital of the Arctic. Elly and Luria left this morning to go to their respective cities. Elly went to Lunta, the capital of the North Atlantic and Luria went to Vilyanm, the capital of the Indian. The capital of the Antarctic is called Hail, which is where Nerissa will be going, and Coralie will be going to the capital of the South Atlantic, Lanta. Next!"
"Okay, first…do you have any more sisters?" Toshiro stressed.
"No, just the seven of us. We're all one year apart, if you can believe that. Michie's the oldest, followed by Astraia, Elly, Luria, Nerissa, Coralie and finally, me."
"And why do you have to go away to the capitals?"
"The usual: keeping the peace, politics, carrying out our royal duties. My father may be the ruler of the seas, but even he can't be expected to keep up with everything that goes in the waters. It's not exactly a float over to the North Pacific. And sending in members of the committee only works for so long. It's difficult to command the respect of the merpeople, but they respect my father, and through him, us as well. It's our duty to ensure that the peace is maintained between the eight oceans."
"And when do you have to leave?" He tried to pose that question in an aloof tone, as if he was asking about the weather, but he was dreading the answer. He didn't want her to leave just yet, even though he knew it was inevitable that he would have to return to his kingdom soon.
She slipped her hand into his. "Don't worry, not for a few years at least."
With those words, they let the matter drop, both agreeing to deal with it another day. After arriving at Rangiku's house and spending a good twenty minutes trying to drag her out of bed, the three of them headed to the markets. While they amused themselves flitting through the many stalls and yawing through the crowds, apparently their three familiars found the whole trip boring to say the least. So boring that when Haineko playfully nipped at Tobiume's tail, she responded with an overzealous tackle that sent the seal crashing into Hyorinmaru. Not impressed, he began to chase them. They ducked and dodged through the entire market place, their game only ending when Haineko crashed into a barrel of barnacles.
"What were you thinking, Hyorinmaru?" Toshiro asked. He felt around the back of his head and tugged at a stray barnacle that latched upon his hair. "I can't believe you let them goad you like that."
"As if you're one to talk," he snapped back before falling into a sulk.
"Live and let live, young prudish human," Rangiku sang.
"Who are you calling a prude, you old tart!"
"Hypocrite," muttered Hyorinmaru.
Lord Arthion sat behind his desk, scanning through the reports from the other capital cities that had been brought to him this morning. His eyebrows furrowed as he read through the report on the Arctic Ocean. His daughter had made a small comment on how the currents were just a few degrees warmer than normal a few weeks ago. However, she followed her comment with another assuring him that everything returned to normal soon after. Still, a small doubt lingered in the back of the king's mind. His worries settled somewhat as he read the report from the North Pacific, with his eldest daughter reporting that everything was as normal and that Matzu's deity day was a great success.
Two sharp knocks sounded, followed by a voice. "My Lord, I have messages from the North Atlantic and the Indian and reports from your advisors in the Antarctic, South Atlantic and South Pacific."
"Come in." His voice was steady, but he had been waiting for those messages for a week. He was anxious to see if his third and fourth daughter had made it safely to their respective capitals. "Leave them on my desk."
"Of course, my lord."
The messenger bowed and took his leave. As soon as the doors were closed and no one but Kouukin was in the room, Lord Arthion lunged for the pile of papers. The messages from his daughters were on the top. He picked up the topmost sheet and was relieved to see Elemmiire's curly writing. He never thought he'd be this happy to see the all those smiley faces she loved to inject into her writing. She assured him that she had arrived safely at Lunta, and told him he shouldn't worry so much or he might turn what was left of his black hair white. Luria had also arrived safely in Vilyanm, but made a small comment on how it was colder than she expected.
"Colder than she expected? In Vilyanm?" The capital of the Indian Ocean, Vilyanm, was notorious for being the most sweltering area in all the waters. This was due to the surrounding volcanoes, most of which were dormant. Even during the cold season it was quite warm. Lord Arthion shook his head. "She must not be keeping her iron levels up. If I've told her once, I've told her a thousand times: jellyfish is a great source of iron, even if she hates it."
While he managed to rationalise the unusual situation in the Indian Ocean, it was more difficult to do the same as he read the reports on the remaining oceans – oceans which were still overseen by his committee. All of these deviations from the norm were small; so small and inconsequential that you could probably pass it off as a bad day, but…
"This is just how it started the last time. I can't think how he could have…perhaps this old man's mind is just becoming paranoid. I don't want to send them out this early." He looked at a picture sitting on his desk – a picture of happier times. As much as he didn't want to send his remaining daughters out, he was determined not to make the same mistake again.
His voice was only a fraction louder than usual, but he knew his oldest and most loyal attendant was always nearby. As expected, the doors opened moments later.
"What is it, my Lord," she asked, dipping her head in a demure bow.
"Please assemble my remaining daughters in the throne room. It's time they set out."