Hypostasis Finds His New Haunts
"Such a pleasure to see you, Undersecretary Crenillea.”
Crenillea glanced over the rims of her horned-rimmed spectacles, whose designed tortoiseshell pattern perfectly matched her natural Maraquan Shoyru carapace. She quickly returned her gaze to the nacre-laminated scrolls arrayed before her, held in place by her government-issued coral desk blotter. She did not smile. “Sit down, Hypostasis.”
Hypostasis glided gracefully to the ornate table, darting his tongue delicately along the way. He closed his eyes briefly, savouring the exquisite smells of Kelp’s gourmet cuisine that permeated the water all around them. He had often been to Kelp, of course, but he rarely had the opportunity to enjoy the sumptuous private rooms in the lower levels. He took his place at the table attentively. “How can I be of service, Madam Undersecretary? I’m eager to put my training at Altador’s most prestigious university to good use.”
The Shoyru pursed her lips. “I’m well aware of your educational background.” There was a knock at the door. She lifted her claw as the door opened, silencing the Hissi. A Uni with scales the colour of surface water swam in, carrying a menu and a small crystal cruet filled with red sauce. “Welcome to Kelp, Madam Undersecretary. We pride ourselves on our eclectic blend of both modern and traditional cuisine, which I am sure a connoisseur such as yourself will appreciate.” After offering the menus, she placed the cruet in from of the Hissi with a wink. “Hi, pasta sauce!”
The Shoyru raised an eye at the break in protocol. Hypostasis laughed. “My apologies, Madam Undersecretary. I’m a bit of a regular here, and the staff has a running joke because of how I used to mispronounce my name when I was just a child.”
The Shoyru sniffed. “Indeed.”
Hypostasis nodded. He turned to the Uni server with a casual smile. “Arista, if you could please give us a few minutes?” The Uni nodded and left the room just a bit more quickly than was absolutely necessary.
Crenillea stared pointedly at Hypostasis. “Perhaps we should focus on the matter at hand? A situation has developed on the frontier. It is a matter of interest at the highest levels, and, needless to say, requires the utmost diplomacy.”
Hypostasis pressed his wingtips together, careful not to interrupt his superior.
The Shoyru peered down at a scroll. “After the unpleasantness with the long storm, many good Maraquans had to take refuge until His Majesty was able to rebuild Maraqua. A few disaffected citizens chose to remain in their new settlements. One such settlement is here – “ she poked at a map of the sea floor, between Old Maraqua and the entrance to Moltara – “in a small community called Brightness Reef.”
Hypostasis sat attentively.
“Until recently, this small rural settlement lay beneath the notice of the Maraquan authorities. However, a significant deposit of maractite was recently discovered.”
Hypostasis didn’t need his advanced studies in international finance to know the value of maractite. Stronger than steel, able to slice effortlessly through water, maractite was literally the bedrock of underwater currency and weaponry, and Maraqua’s most valued resource. He finally spoke. “That’s wonderful news! … Isn’t it?”
Crenillea clenched her jaw. “Unfortunately, Mr. Hypostasis, the situation presents some challenges. The residents of Brightness Reef do not acknowledge our sovereignty.”
Hypostasis almost choked on an hors-d’oeuvre. “But… but they’re Maraquans!”
The undersecretary narrowed her eyes. “Indeed. However, as I said, they are on the frontier, and have lived autonomously for some years now. Brightness Reef has also come to the attention of Mystery Island’s ruling council, who have quietly but formally acknowledged Brightness Reef as an independent commune and established trade negotiations with them.”
Hypostasis could put two and two together. It was no secret that Governor McGill’s recent consolidation of Krawk Island – and his concomitant consolidation of power – had left nearby nations, including Mystery Island and Maraqua, questioning whether his aspirations for power might extend beyond the waters of Krawk Island. Krawk Island’s financial power as the sole dispenser of Dubloons, its military prowess as the home of one of Neopia’s most prominent training centres, and the rumoured fleet of warships harboured at Scurvy Island made Krawk Island a formidable ocean power. Mystery Island was known to be building up its defensive naval forces, and that would require maractite – large amounts of maractite. Normally, Maraqua’s monopoly on maractite would have given Maraqua a huge strategic advantage. New external sources of maractite would pose a genuine threat to Maraqua’s leverage in the region.
“Your mission, Mr. Hypostasis, is to reinforce the Kingdom of Maraqua’s hegemony over the undersea communities, beginning with Brightness Reef.”
Hypostasis nodded. “How can I best re-establish control?”
The Shoyru glanced sharply up at him. “You are not to re-establish anything, Hypostasis. It is the position of the Maraquan government that Brightness Reef, as part of the Maraquan diaspora, has always been and remains under Maraquan rule. We are merely clarifying our pre-existing claim to the mineral rights. At the same time, we do not wish to attract unnecessary international attention.”
“The safest treasure is the one that no one knows is hidden, Madam Undersecretary?”
“Indeed. Mr. Hypostasis, your orders are to make all necessary arrangements and leave forthwith. I expect your report within the week.”
“Yes, Madam Undersecretary!” The Maraquan Hissi poured his eponymous marinara into his Angel Hair Salad and tucked in with gusto.
Hypostasis had gone camping before, but he’d never been this far into the wilderness. He was glad he’d packed his Canteen-o-Sand; growing up in the big city, he’d never spent so long in such vast expanses of open water before. After many leagues of travel, he finally sighted his goal: a sloping mesa blessed by gentle, warm currents that had nourished the local coral into a giant arching reef, providing a natural shelter from the creatures of the surrounding plains. It was beautiful, if a tad backwater.
The Maraquan Hissi loosened his cloak as the water grew warmer. Eventually he came across a trail that seemed to lead into the reef. Aside from a few curious Kora that tentatively nibbled at his fins, he still hadn’t seen a single soul in this desolate waste. Shooing the Kora away with the folds of his cloak, he scooted cautiously forward along the path.
More and more shells began to line the roadway as the path wound its way to a grouping of small huts. Hypostasis couldn’t help finding them a rather shabby affair, really, compared to the architectural wonders of Maraqua City. A sign labelled “SALOON” swayed in the currents above the entrance of a smallish structure, which appeared to be the overturned hull of a sunken ship tiled with Purple Scallop and Green Clam Shells. Hypostasis shrugged, and pushed his way through the swinging doors.
Behind the counter, the barkeep, a zaftig Maraquan Ixi with gleaming amber fur, was busy rinsing out a Gravitic Urn. Her unusually long tresses floated rustically in the water. “Welcome to the Sheriff’s Staragus, stranger. What c’n I do ya for?”
Hypostasis paddled up to the bar. “One Foozette Juice, please.”
The Ixi frowned. “Fresh out of Foozette, I’m afraid. Not much call for fancy tropical drinks in these parts. How about a nice Blended Lemaniac instead? Just got a shipment in today from Tafiti here.” She gestured towards a beardy chap, a Camouflage Flotsam with a courier’s bag who was relaxing at the far end of the bar. Hypostasis nodded his consent.
“They call me Mesquitte,” she chatted, as she fetched a flask of Lemaniac juice. “But you have me at a disadvantage, my young lad. Who might you be?”
“Hypostasis. Charmed,“ the Hissi replied gallantly.
“That’s quite an aristocratic name.”
Hypostasis’ eyes grew bright. “It’s an old family name,” he offered proudly, “going back to Old Maraqua.”
The Ixi and Flotsam exchanged a look. “It’s not often we get two visitors in one day, especially new folk,” continued Mesquitte.
Hypostasis smiled, as images of the grand underwater boulevards surrounding King Kelpbeard’s castle flashed across his mind’s eye. “This is a bit of a one-seahorse town, isn’t it?”
Tafiti’s jaw dropped, and he quickly turned away to hide his smile. Mesquitte drew herself sharply, but replied in her most cheerful tone. “Why, yes, we do love our quiet little town. Whatever brings you to these parts?”
“I’m here on business of rather some importance. My goodness, are you using that Gravitic Urn to mix my drink? … That’s really quite ingenious. Not quite the way I learned to mix drinks during my days at Altador’s most prestigious university, but I suppose way out on the frontier, you learn to be inventive.”
“Why, bless your heart,” said Mesquitte, shaking the Urn perhaps a bit too vigorously.
“I need to speak with the leader of the community. Where might I find him?”
“My heavens, I’m surprised that a sophisticated, big-city Hissi such as yourself would assume that a man has to be in charge.”
Hypostasis’ eyes widened. “Oh no. No. Not at all. I meant no offense. My own immediate superior is a woman,” he stammered. Mesquitte cocked her head, enjoying his discomfiture.
Tafiti took pity on the lad. “You’ll be wanting the sheriff, who is in fact male, and rather old-fashioned at that. He’s a Maractite Hissi, name of Écueil.” Tafiti had never quite mastered the name, and mispronounced it slightly as “ay-KOI.”
Hypostasis’ brow furrowed. “Écueil?” he mulled, pronouncing the name flawlessly. “That’s an old aristocratic name as well.”
Mesquitte smiled. “Here’s a favour for nothin’, sweetheart. Don’t mention that to the sheriff.”
Tafiti had been kind enough to escort Hypostasis as far as the sheriff’s ranch, but then had to leave on urgent business of his own. The Maraquan Hissi had never seen an actual Kora ranch in person before. He darted his tongue tentatively. Unfortunately, the ranch smelled even more like bottom-feeders than he had expected. A rambunctious Trunkard, who had been shepherding a small school of Maractite Ramosan, bounded over, sniffed Hypostasis’ cloak, and scampered off.
Hypostasis gasped at the sight of the ranch house. The dirty little shack, whose porch was overrun with aquatic livestock, boasted transparashield windows from the heydays of Old Maraqua. The only time he’d seen windows like that while antiquing, during his days studying at Altador’s most prestigious university, they’d cost a small fortune and not been nearly as nice a set. Nearby, what looked like a small crater exposed a vein of maractite worth many times Hypostasis’ salary. The Hissi collected himself, composed his most diplomatic face, and knocked.
Hypostasis wasn’t sure what he had expected, but it wasn’t this. A grizzled, shirtless Maractite Hissi opened the door. Glowing maractite markings limned his feathers and scales. A belt sporting his sheriff’s silver star held up his trousers and the holster for a small maractite dagger. He wore a small squid like a turban. However, Hypostasis’ eyes moved quickly to the imposing, hand-hewn maractite boomerang that the sheriff held high, ready to hurl with potentially lethal force. Hypostasis gulped.
“Good day, sheriff, Écueil, is it? My name is Hypostasis, and I’m here on behalf of the Maraquan government to thank you for your service to this community.”
The sheriff said nothing.
“I can only imagine the fortitude it must have taken you to build this community after the catastrophe, when so little help was available. I’ve been sent on behalf of His Majesty, King Kelpbeard, to bring the full benefits of civil support to you.”
The sheriff spat. “You’re from Maraqua? You’re after the maractite. It’s spoken for.”
Hypostasis gave his most ingratiating smile, noting that the boomerang remained poised. “Well, that’s certainly something we should discuss. Legally, Maraqua holds mineral rights over our underwater provinces, and maintains the right to regulate – “
“This here ain’t Maraqua,” Écueil interrupted tersely. “This is my land, and you all have no claim here.”
“Now, sir,” said Hypostasis patiently, as if to a small child, “let’s be reasonable. Most people here fled Maraqua during the dark days. By law, you are all still Maraquan citizens.”
“That’s as may be,” grunted the sheriff. “But that was then. This is now.”
“And you live underwater! Surely you don’t expect the surface dwellers to be better allies than Maraquans?”
“I expect to take care of my own. Better than Kelpbeard ever did.”
Hypostasis had never in his life heard anyone malign His Royal Majesty. “But the King saved us! How could you even think of abandoning the privilege of Maraquan rule?”
“Like this.” With a snap of his maractite wrist, the sheriff shot his boomerang through the water, curving behind Hypostasis’ head in a tight circle, before returning to his waiting wing. It missed Hypostasis’ head by centimetres both coming and going.
“Leave. Now. Don’t come back if you know what’s good for you.”
The door slammed in Hypostasis’ face. The transparashield windows hummed as the walls shook.
The trek back to Maraqua seemed to take ages. Hypostasis couldn’t get the sound of the door slamming out of his tongue, or shake the memory of blood rushing through his head and adrenaline coursing through his veins as the boomerang grazed him.
He had expected to return to the undersecretary in triumph. He had rarely earned her approval, but he had never before encountered her disappointment. After a long, uncomfortable wait in her reception area, he was allowed an audience, where he gave his report.
The undersecretary was unsympathetic. “I need not underscore the importance of this mission to the Maraquan government. I must underscore the need to keep a low profile. If you require assistance from me, it will be taken as a sign that you have failed in your mission.”
For the first time, Hypostasis lost his air of youthful enthusiasm. “Indeed, Madam Undersecretary.”
Hypostasis swam around New Maraqua at a loss. All his old haunts, like Kelp, offered no solace; he didn’t dare answer any questions about his current predicament. Treading on the outskirts of the city, he gazed at the gleaming lights, the fluorescent corals, and wondered once more why anyone would willingly turn their backs on the glory and grandeur of Maraquan civilisation.
With nowhere else to go, Hypostasis floated amid the ruins of Old Maraqua. Maybe a visit to his family’s ancestral shrine would give him some inspiration. He was bright and capable. He was in the right. All he needed to do was meditate, and the answer would surely come.
He soon found the damaged tombs with his family crest. With all of his considerable intellect, he focused on his mission. Mentally he retraced his journey, looking for missteps, for an argument that would convince these incomprehensibly recalcitrant settlers. Hypostasis blinked. Something was amiss. The taste of bubbling, rancid slime assailed his tongue. In his distraction, he had lost track of time, and the faint light that penetrated this far below the waters had receded to an impenetrable gloom. The currents behind him felt suddenly… wrong. The same rush of panic he had felt facing the sheriff’s boomerang overwhelmed him again.
No. He would not bolt. He was a Maraquan, not a scared little Ghoti. He was an attaché of His Majesty’s diplomatic corps. He was a noble pet from a noble lineage, floating in his ancestral home. He was going to turn around and face his fears. He was going to turn around. He was not afraid to turn around.
He turned around.
A hideous, cyanotic tongue emerged from a gaping maw inches from his face. The stench of mutated bracken squirted around him like squid’s ink. A low creaking growl croaked, vibrating the waters.
Hypostasis bolted. He spun around, all dignity forgotten, and swam forward at full speed. There was a sickening thud as his skull connected with the slab marking his ancestral tomb. The water darkened to blackness.
The Hissi blinked open his eyes. Still numb from the impact, he found he could not focus. The Maraquan Mynci before him seemed a pink-skinned blur. Other figures seemed to drift in and out of view – an Acara? A Techo? – he could not tell.
The Mynci’s paw reached out, as if to caress him, but the Hissi felt nothing. “You are on a quest, are you not, young one?” The shaded figures in the background seemed to murmur their assent.
“So much talent, little one. Such a sharp mind! Yes, yes, I know. You went to Altador’s most prestigious university. No one can doubt your training, or your acumen, little one, but perhaps what you are lacking is experience.” The muffled voices in the background rose, and subsided again. Hypostasis’ head was throbbing like Grape Jelly Bongos.
“We must go, little one. Heed our wisdom. Remember that wheresoever you go, we go with you.”
Hypostasis’ eyes were blinded by a searing grey as he forced them open, despite the pain in his skull. A rasping croak brought him back to reality, and he shot through the water like a starving Dartail.
Swimming towards Brightness Reef once again, Hypostasis saw the bright pastels of the giant coral shimmering in the morning sunlight. It really was quite lovely out here, he thought, as he shifted the weight of his heavy satchel. Now that he knew the way, he found the saloon much more easily.
Mesquitte raised her eyebrows as he came in. “Well, hello, darlin’. I didn’t expect to see you again. So soon.”
The Hissi swam with a smooth, practiced breaststroke up to the bar. “Here, Miss Mesquitte, I have a gift for you.” He rummaged through his satchel and extracted a carafe of Foozette Juice.
“That’s quite considerate of you,” said Mesquitte cautiously. “What’s the occasion?”
“Why, it’s a welcome gift. Isn’t that what new neighbours do?”
At that moment, the doors swung open with a bang. In strode the sheriff. He did not look pleased. “What was that now?”
“Why, Sheriff, what a pleasure to see you again. Here, this is for you.” Hypostasis withdrew a small phial from his bag. “Maractite Polish. For your boomerang. And your dagger. And even as a body scrub, if you like.”
The sheriff did not move to take the phial. Shrugging, Hypostasis set it on the counter, where the sheriff could reach it if he chose.
“I thought I made myself clear,” growled Écueil. “Outsiders ain’t welcome here.”
“But I’m not an outsider,” replied Hypostasis pleasantly. “We’re all Maraquans here, even if you’ve forgotten. Or chosen to forget.”
The sheriff’s wingtips brushed against his boomerang.
“Sheriff, if an undertow swept away just one of your Kora, wouldn’t you go to the ends of the ocean to bring her safely back home?”
Mesquitte gave a half-smile. The sheriff ground his teeth. “I reckon. Yes.”
“Well, Maraqua has been scattered, too. But we’ve always come back. And we’ve never forgotten who we are, or how important our relatives – our kinfolk – are.”
Écueil’s eyes bore holes through the lad, but he said nothing.
“Maraqua arose from the ruins. I believe that a remnant survived to be tested in the tempest. Just like you were. And New Maraqua thrives, just as you do."
Écueil remained stonily silent.
Mesquitte gave the young lad a questioning look. “So, you’re saying New Maraqua and Brightness Reef are neighbours now? That’s why you’re being neighbourly?”
Hypostasis laughed. “Oh, my, no. I’m moving in. I’m your new neighbour.”
Mesquitte put her hands on her hips and gave a deep-throated laugh. “Well, this should be interesting.”
The sheriff looked him over appraisingly. “There ain’t no law agin’ it,” he managed, “so long as you respect that I’m the law around here.”
“As you wish,” grinned Hypostasis. “Now, sheriff, how about a drink?”
Écueil reached out and took the phial from the counter.