Artemis turned around and walked away. "Come," she said, beckoning for me to follow.
Skirting around the edge of the bonsai forest, she led us to a gazebo in one corner of the garden. Instead of benches, there were two swings wrought of darkened metal with plushly cushioned seats facing each other. Taking a seat on one of them, she invited me to sit on the other.
Adjusting her wings for comfort, she leaned back and pushed off lightly with the tip of her toe, making it swing gently.
"According to the normal flow, we should be swapping stories right about now. I tell you about myself and you return the favour. Getting to know each other as it were. But the problem is that, to understand my story, you will need some context… a lot of context."
Leaning her head back against the backrest, she looked up at the domed ceiling of the gazebo. Curious, I followed her line of sight.
The ceiling, like the rest of the gazebo, was made from polished white marble shot through with light pink veins. There, chiselled into it was a map. A map of the entire world.
It was in the form of a figure of eight, two circles touching each other at a single point, each depicting one half of the world. I could recognize the Continent immediately – a large mass of land that took up most of one of the circles. Regiis was clearly marked with cross-hatching distinguishing it from its surroundings. To the east of Regiis was the expansive spread of Huaxia while its west was fragmented into the five major Nations – Indus, Egypt and Rome bordering Regiis and the Caliphate and the Deus theocracy beyond. And to the extreme north of the Continent, occupying the perpetually frozen wastelands there, were the Barbarian hordes.
Lining the southern edge of the Continent was a broad expanse of (relatively) shallow seas: The Bay of Kings.
Occupying the centre of the Bay was the island nation of the Shogunate, connected to the mainland through maritime trade routes that used several of the scattered islands and archipelagos within it as rest stops. The Bay was also home to the corsairs of the Vikings – the notorious pirates that were a scourge upon all insufficiently protected cargo ships traversing those routes.
All this was familiar to me, but the second half of the map was something I had never seen before. When I turned my gaze to the Princess with question in my eyes, she explained, "That's the map of the other half of the world. The Forbidden Continent and the impassable oceans surrounding it.
"The shallow waters of the Bay are still navigable, but when it comes to exploring the deep seas, our current level of strength is utterly insufficient. Like straw tossed against the wind. Violent storms, towering waves, Ancient Beasts that have somehow slipped through the gaps of Vita's fingers… the dangers of the deep seas are many and varied and even the efforts of a Demigod fall pale in front of its boundlessness.
"The only reason we even know about its existence is through the words and cargoes brought to us by the Sky Merchants of Mercator – the residents of the allied groups of floating islands that circle our world along its latitudes."
I had read about Mercator before. It was more of a trade union and a loose coalition of merchants than a proper organization. As per the origin mythos of our world, a massive asteroid had crashed into it in its nascent stage, gouging out a huge chunk of it, combining with it and forming the moon. The resultant depression was filled by water over long years of precipitation, creating the oceans and seas that we see today. It is said that debris of the asteroid remained scattered all over the world, hovering above the earth due to their special nature and forming the chains of floating islands.
Due to how spread out the islands were, the Sky Merchants formed smaller guilds within themselves based on which clumps of islands they resided on. Mainly Pluma in lineage, they traded with whichever surface-dwellers they passed over, buying cheap and selling high to earn prodigious profits. Within their organization money was status, money was power, money was religion.
But I hadn't been aware that the Sky Merchants traded with this so-called Forbidden Continent. The time taken by them to circle Ea was a little irregular but they generally appeared once every ten cycles (forty years) and brought with them large amounts of exotic maritime resources that they had traded from the Marine Empire of Atlantis – the nation of the sea-folk: The Mer. I had assumed that Atlantis was the only thing on the opposite side of the world. Apparently, I was wrong.
It reminded me once again of my inadequacy. Princess Artemis, adopted or not, had received an Imperial education and even Ceres, the most well-read among us, wouldn't be able to compare with the broadness of her knowledge.
"I wanted to show you this. That's why I brought you here. You need to at least have an idea of it if you are to understand my tale. I don't particularly support the practice but a lot of information is considered unnecessary for public dissemination. 'They don't need to know,' is what the authorities say." Artemis shook her head and sighed. "Thanks to that, you have a lot of holes in your knowledge that I'll have to fill as we go along. As the wise men say, it is always best to start at the very beginning and work your way up."
She paused for a moment, gathering her thoughts and organizing them before launching into her tale.
"My roots are Roman. Julius Caesar, before he earned his title by carving his own nation out of the world, was named Julius Aegypius. A Pluma with the blood of eagles flowing through his veins, he was one of the first disciples of Emperor Adam as well as one of his most accomplished Generals during his war against the tribes. Despite his affinity being towards the element of Earth and his landed exploits later in life, it was naval warfare that he first became famous for. He fought off the Vikings, protecting the ships Emperor Adam used to trade with Indus for the equipment and resources he needed to push further inland with his nascent army.
"It was there that he met his strongest match and his future wife: Sigrún Valkyria, the Falcon of Steel. Thus began the Saga of the Stone Eagle and the Steel Falcon."
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