Fiction — “The War on the Sea”

I’m not sure which the boy-emperor held more in contempt: the sinking of a ship carrying golden statues in his likeness, or the sinking of a ship carrying his father.

As enemies invaded from the East, the boy declared war on the sea.

A line of soldiers advanced to the edge of the water and stuck their spears into the frothy wake. There they remained, defending against oncoming waves, while the rest of the army secured the coast, burning its crops, or the hair and bulbs of seaweed, and plundering its treasures – sea shells, sand dollars.

As red canvas tents rose toward the sky, as a cold wind pushed through the camp, as a blue anvil of rain clouds coalesced in the horizon, we, the boy’s admirals, corps generals, and advisers, met to discuss rumors from the East and our next move. Sentries had reported black totems of smoke, trailing clouds of dust, a decline in merchants on the roads.

A foreign army approached.

But the boy did not listen to counsel. He emptied the treasury to build a great navy in the Cities. A thousand slaves carried those ships to the ocean, and a thousand more built wharfs like bridges to invisible islands. The admirals, with some wariness, spread the ships across the bay, and released the cannons, blasting the surface of the water with hollow balls of iron, and then any metals they could find.

Tthe ocean did not submit. Instead, the storm broke over the fleet. We watched from the emperor’s white throne on a hill, shielded from the rain by slaves carrying parasols, as the ships, almost miniatures from our vantage, hazy beneath the squall, disappeared one by one, or scattered into particles. Soon the bay was a mulch of wood and bodies, and the soldiers scoured the beach to pull up little white corpses.

I turned to the boy to find him crying.

“I’ve been poisoned by the sea,” he whispered, looking at hands wet with salted tears. I put away my knife, and agreed.