Samudra sat in her palace, stirring up the sea. In the west, a great storm, to punish the citizens of a port city who had failed to pay proper homage to her; in the north, another storm, less fierce, typical of this time of year, really, that the hot-headed youths loved to race in. For the great inland sea, smooth waters, that their trade might flourish. To the east—well, she wasn’t sure yet, so the sea was choppy but not impassable—small groups of humans kept leaving their island homes in rickety canoes, sailing off towards what they couldn’t know, and she was at once intrigued by their bravery and confused by it. She watched them carefully.
The sea nymphs in attendance on her began to murmur and scuttle about—but sea nymphs often did that and you just had to get used to it. Very short attention spans, sea nymphs.
“Is there a problem?” Samudra finally asked, when the whispering and restlessness had reached an unusual peak.
“Oh! Your Majesty!” fluttered one nymph ineffectually. “Someone has come to the palace!”
Well, that explained why her attendants were all in a tizzy. Sea nymphs were rather high-strung as well. “Could you be a little more specific?” Samudra suggested tolerantly. She was patient as the eternal sea, after all.
“Oh, well, I don’t really—How did he—What did he—Hmm, I think he—“
But Samudra could also be as fierce as the raging sea, and the pearlescent blue-green walls around them began to darken ominously as she stared at her dithering attendants. Finally they just decided to open the door and get out of the way.
Samudra was somewhat disappointed by who walked in. No strapping hero adorned with animal skins or horns; no beautiful poet clutching his lyre or pipes; not even a lovely maiden seeking entrance to her court. Just a man, not very tall, with a prominent nose and slender build. At least he walked stiff-legged like a sailor, though. And his eyes burned with a green fire.
“Milady,” he greeted, bowing. Although not very much.
Samudra narrowed her eyes at him. “There are few,” she informed the stranger frostily, “who need not bow lower to me. Are you one of them?”
He smiled a bit impertinently. “As a fellow resident of the great mountain Parvata, I feel I am, yes.”
“There are many residents of the great mountain,” she reminded him. Once upon a time only the greatest of the pantheon had seats there, but, well, the bureaucracy had expanded to meet the needs of the expanding bureaucracy. “Including servants.”
He smiled again, an absolute smirk now. One really did not smirk at the goddess of the sea. “That is quite true, milady,” he agreed. “And I am well-acquainted with the truth.”
Hmm, that was an odd and leading thing to say. Samudra leaned forward a bit in her throne, as if that would get her a better look at him. “How did you get here?” she finally asked him.
“It was a long and arduous journey, milady,” he assured her. “First, I changed myself into a salmon.”
Samudra quirked an eyebrow. “A salmon?”
“Not such a good idea, as it turned out,” he admitted, “as I was quickly netted by a group of fishermen who were reluctant to let such a large and succulent specimen go.”
Samudra gestured for her nymphs to bring him a chair. Perhaps he was a story-telling bard come to entertain her. Was it her birthday? It seemed like the kind of thing some of her friends might come up with. “That must have been very awkward,” Samudra allowed, indicating he should sit.
“Indeed, milady,” he agreed. “I was delayed considerably by my negotiations for freedom.”
“One would think a talking salmon would inspire quicker action,” she commented dryly.
The man shrugged. “Well, times being what they are, milady, I heard talk of being sold into a circus sideshow before I finally managed to flop overboard and escape.” Samudra tried not to smile at the thought.
“Next, I changed myself into an oyster,” he went on, “thinking that when the fishing boats came by, I could cleave to a rock and be safe.” Samudra waited expectantly, understanding that this was probably not a good idea, either. I mean, really, an oyster? “But then, just as I had attached myself to a rock to avoid a passing fishing boat—a diver swam up to me and cut me open with a knife, stealing the pearl I was making for your ladyship.”
“I somehow doubt you put up much of a fight,” Samudra observed.
“I have always found it wiser not to argue with a beautiful woman wielding a weapon,” he assured her cheekily.
Samudra signaled to a nymph to bring her visitor something to drink. “Yet you’re here, and none the worse for wear,” she prompted.
“Well, that is because I next changed myself into a dolphin,” he went on, after taking a drink. “The pearl divers laughed and swam along beside me, keeping their knives far away. And when I was accidentally snared by some fishermen, they ruined their net and lost most of their catch rushing to set me free.” As well they should—dolphins were notorious for being the souls of dead sailors, heroes and gods and demons in disguise, sea nymphs trying to lure men to their doom… Best just not to mess with dolphins, really. “And so, as a dolphin, I swam down to the bottom of the sea, to this great palace.”
“A very fine tale,” Samudra allowed. “And now that you have made this perilous journey, what is your purpose?”
“I’m looking for Samudra, the goddess of the sea,” the man replied, in an off-hand manner. “Have you seen her?”
This gave her pause. “I’m Samudra,” she pointed out, which should have been obvious. Did he think just anyone got to sit in the throne?
He chuckled a little, as if she had told a mildly amusing joke. “Oh, surely not.”
Samudra frowned at him, her pleasant mood vanishing. The walls began to pulse blue-grey-green, which he didn’t seem to notice. “You had better have a very good reason for walking into my palace and insulting me,” she warned. Though frankly, she couldn’t think of one.
“Oh, I mean no offense, milady,” he tried to tell her. “I understand if I have to run a gauntlet of impersonators before meeting the real Samudra. It’s only sensible.”
The ceiling overhead roiled with black clouds, and shadowy figures much like sea serpents slithered across the floor as Samudra clenched her jaw in fury. The sea nymphs started shrieking and dashing about—they always did that when the snakes came out—but she ignored them, as did her visitor.
“I mean, how foolish would it be not to have some security measures in place?” he went on heedlessly. “You don’t want just anyone walking in off the streets—er, out of the ocean—and having access to Samudra. So, where is she?”
Samudra jumped to her feet, the floor shaking with her anger. An earthquake erupted near a city in Asia Minor and the waves on the inland sea tossed the hapless merchant crafts violently. “How dare you!” she thundered. “I am Samudra, the goddess of the sea, terrible, life-giving, and eternal! I need no security measures, no trickery to protect myself! Tell me your name and who sent you, and I will crush them like the rocks are crushed by the waves!”
The visitor had also stood and now made a placating gesture with his hands. “I sincerely apologize, milady, I did not mean to offend,” he insisted. “It’s just—well, you mentioned trickery. I have a very important message I must give only to the goddess of the sea, and I need to be sure of your identity.”
The clouds above calmed somewhat and the sea serpents settled down. Now Samudra was merely exasperated, though in the extreme. “This is not the domain of Chala, the trickster god,” she pointed out loftily. “I do not set tests for mere messengers. Give me your message.”
Still he hesitated. “I’m sorry, milady, it’s just that I know my master will ask how I knew it was Samudra I spoke to, and, well, if I can’t give him a good answer, he has plenty of creative punishments in mind.”
Samudra sat back down. The nymphs scurried about, cleaning up the mess she’d made, scooping sailors back into their boats, patching up broken cliffs, consulting with the construction gods over the damage to the city in Asia Minor. Samudra did not exactly feel sympathy for her annoying visitor, but she could understand his position. “Is your master that nut Marius, the god of war?” she asked derisively. “That sounds like some ridiculous threat he would come up with. Very well,” she acquiesced, against her better judgment. “What can I do to prove to you that I’m really Samudra? Not that I normally go around doing parlor tricks, you understand.”
“Of course not, milady,” he agreed quickly. “And personally, I completely believe you. It’s just my master…”
“Yes, yes, yes,” she snapped impatiently. “To prove to your master, whatever. This was somewhat entertaining at one point, but now it’s getting tiresome, and I’m missing the South Pacific migration, so…”
“Absolutely, milady,” he assured her. “I was just thinking that, perhaps, something fairly easy—and non-destructive, of course—might be if you were to change into some kind of ocean life.”
“Ocean life?” Samudra sputtered indignantly. “You want me, the goddess of the sea, to turn into animals?”
“Well, you can turn into any animal in the ocean, can’t you?” he pressed.
“Any substance,” she corrected haughtily. “Animal, vegetable, or mineral. But you turned into a salmon, so I don’t see how that would prove anything.”
“That was just a special temporary power granted by my master for the journey,” he dismissed. “But if you could turn into something really difficult, like, I don’t know, an octopus—“
“Are you serious?” Samudra demanded.
“Well, sorry,” the man replied, getting a bit impatient now. “Look, I’m only trying to do my job. If you can’t do an octopus—“
“I didn’t say I couldn’t,” said the regal, but rather peevish, octopus now sitting on the throne. “It’s just a bit ridiculous, is all.” The octopus gave a little shudder and turned back into a woman. She still twitched a bit longer before finally shaking it off—it was hard to fight the feeling that you suddenly didn’t have enough limbs. “Happy now?”
“Well, you certainly were the most distinguished and beautiful octopus I have ever encountered, milady,” the man said, and Samudra had the distinct impression he was laughing at her on the inside. Which she didn’t especially care for.
“What exactly was the message you had for me?” she prompted him brusquely, deeply regretting the cultural tradition which protected messengers from harm. She understood not harming a messenger because of the message he carried for another; but what if the messenger was, himself, annoying?
The man hesitated again. “Please forgive me, milady,” he begged when she rolled her eyes, “but perhaps you could just do one more?”
“The octopus wasn’t enough?” Samudra griped. She hoped this message was really important, and not just another invitation to her nephew’s hammer-throwing contest or her cousin’s pottery-selling party.
“Oh, the octopus was magnificent,” the man claimed. “It’s just that, well, perhaps it was only an illusion.”
Samudra blinked at him. “You’re worried I might only have the power to make you think I became an octopus, but not to actually become an octopus?”
“Not me, milady,” he insisted, “but my master. He’s particular about details like that.”
“Hmm, so not Marius, then,” Samudra mused. “Well, what more do you want, then?”
“What about a sea anemone?” he suggested. “Those seem terribly difficult, and I’m sure one couldn’t merely create the illusion of being both an octopus and a sea anemone.” Samudra didn’t reply, but she waved her poisoned sea anemone limbs in irritation and hoped he would come closer to investigate. “Spectacular!” he replied instead. “Really a very fine example of the species. Liponema brevicornis, isn’t it?”
“Correct. Thank you,” Samudra replied, having resumed her original form. A nymph who brushed against her fainted dead away from the residual anemone toxin, but Samudra ignored her. Sea nymphs were notorious fainters anyway. “Now, my message, please.”
“Oh for the love of Parvata!” Samudra exclaimed in exasperation. “Are you still not satisfied?”
“Well, you know how gods love to do things in threes, milady,” he pointed out, which she had to admit was sadly true, “and we’re two-thirds of the way there already. Perhaps if you could just—“
“I suppose you’re going to ask me to turn into a dolphin next,” Samudra grumbled.
“Oh, anyone can turn into a dolphin,” he dismissed.
“True,” she agreed pointedly, glad he’d passed on that option. Becoming a dolphin always left a funny taste in her mouth.
“Instead, I was thinking that—“ He stopped and shook his head. “No, that’s just—Well, it’s too much, really—“
“Are you thinking of a nautilus?” Samudra guessed. “All the little spirals in their shells can be quite challenging to reproduce, for non-sea goddesses, of course.”
“Well, actually, I was thinking of—“ Again he stopped himself. “I’m just not sure it would be fair, is the thing. I wouldn’t want to create an, er, awkward moment if you couldn’t—“
“What?!” Samudra demanded, incensed. “I told you, I can transform into any substance of the sea. Now out with it, so we can get this over with!”
“A pearl,” he blurted suddenly. “I just didn’t know if—“
Samudra cut him off by laughing disdainfully. “Of course I can become a pearl!” And she did.
As soon as she had transformed into a small, perfect sphere of milky white, however, the messenger stepped up to the throne and scooped her up into an oyster shell, which he snapped shut around her. It was no ordinary oyster shell, of course, but a special one made for him by the god of smiths, from gold mined from the base of the great mountain itself. It was so strong, with such a clever and sturdy clasp, that even the goddess of the sea could not escape once confined within it. The man tucked the oyster shell into his pocket and headed out the door, unopposed by the chittering, flustered sea nymphs, who really were a rather useless lot.
Easily the man made his way up through the ocean, now deathly still since its mistress had been imprisoned. The oyster shell had been designed for this express purpose, so that not a single bit of Samudra’s power could escape and trouble him. He waded onto shore and his clothes dried instantly in the sun. Avoiding the nearby fishing village—he had had enough of fishermen for one day—he headed inland across the rolling hills, towards the great mountain Parvata and its divine palace at the summit.
He didn’t spend a lot of time at the palace, really—too many unpleasant childhood memories as the butt of his father’s and uncles’ jokes. No wonder he had turned out to be the trickster god, he often told his mother. He could tell she was a little disappointed with his lot—he knew she’d been hoping for something a bit grander, like the god of summer or the god of poetry, or at least the god of jewelry, which would have kept her supplied with free accessories. But he didn’t really have a choice in the matter—a god had to be what they were born to be. Even the goddess of destiny, ironically, couldn’t escape her fate.
Besides, Chala wasn’t merely the god of tricks; he was the god of Truth and Lies, a sadly necessary occupation given the deviousness of men. Who else was responsible for enforcing the oaths made on witness stands? Not the goddess of justice, as was commonly believed—she was sometimes a little too zealous in her pursuit of righteous punishment to care that an accuser hadn’t actually seen the crime committed. Who else was responsible for keeping the merchants honest with their weights and measures, with their records and payrolls? Not the god of commerce, that was for sure; as long as the money was flowing he could care less about the details. Who else was responsible for forcing the politicians to keep all the promises they made in their fancy speeches? Okay, well, that was a pretty big task, even for a god, but Chala knew the value of the occasional tip to the town gossip about where the alderman really was when he was supposed to be negotiating a deal for the city.
But of course he also handled tricks, and that was far more colorful and ‘fun,’ so that was how he got labeled. No one ever wanted to hear about the corrupt judge he’d terrified into a better attitude, or the honest young peasant he’d raised up to the Senate. No, it was always, “Chala, tell us about the time you defeated the Great Boar of Sardinia by transforming into a wild sow!” That was about the level of humor you could expect from gods who’d imbibed a little too much mead at the holiday feast—cross-dressing pig jokes. Conveniently they all forgot how the Great Boar had earned its name, by destroying entire villages, ruining harvests, uprooting forests. Or how the other gods had all failed in their attempts to defeat the beast by force—even Marius, the god of war, had run home crying to his mother when the boar’s tusk grazed his arm. Granted, Marius did that a lot, the whiny baby.
But still, there it was—save the island of Sardinia from certain doom, succeed where all the others have failed, and yet—no respect. Chala had gotten used to it. After all, wanting to please people or win their approval would be a terrible characteristic in his job—you couldn’t have the god of Truth and Lies changing his mind just because someone burst into tears upon being called a liar. Truth hurt.
But that didn’t mean he didn’t get a little lonely sometimes. And when he had seen the goddess of the sea rise up from her watery kingdom and lash the rocky cliffs with her waves of fury, her ferocity terrible and beautiful and utterly unapologetic—his heart had swelled like the rivers with their hurricane rain, and he knew he could never love another. People sometimes said the sea was deceptive, but really, she was just moody—committed to displaying her whims as they passed through her mind, with no artifice or guile. How could he not love the honesty of her nature? The sea said, “Take me as I am, I will change for no man.” And he didn’t want her to.
There were always rules to be followed, though. Just because he had lost his heart to the sea, that didn’t mean he could wade in and propose—he had to talk to Azani, the Thunderbolt, the ruler of all the gods, and ask his permission first. (This rule had been put in place after several embarrassing incidents with the goddess of love, who was a little bit of a tramp.) And naturally Azani couldn’t just say yes, he had to make some sort of game out of it, which Chala attributed to sheer boredom as mass media hadn’t yet been invented. With that in mind Chala had been charged with luring Samudra—who vastly preferred her quiet undersea palace to the hotbed of drama that was Parvata—back into the presence of her ruler and lord. And by ‘lure,’ Azani meant—get her here, by any means necessary. Thus the pearl in the golden oyster, the pearl that contained the whole of the sea.
It wasn’t the perfect beginning to a relationship. There would be Hell to pay when Chala opened that oyster shell in the great throne room—worse, actually, it would be the sea who demanded retribution, as Naraka, the ruler of the underworld, was really a fairly laid-back bloke, considering his living conditions. The sea was anything but laid-back, as well he knew. Chala wasn’t really too worried, though—they had all eternity, more or less, so he was confident they would eventually get past this initial rough patch.
Although he was going to avoid sailing for the next couple of millennia or so.