When the Sea-King's Away

Published: 1960

There was an old Simorgyan legend, Fafhrd had insisted, according to which on the seventh day of the seventh moon of the seventh year of the Sevens-Cycle the king of the sea journeyed to the other end of the earth, leaving his opalescently beautiful green wives and faintly silver-scaled slim concubines free to find them lovers if they could . . . and this, Fafhrd had stridently asserted he knew by the spectral calm and other occult tokens, was the place of the sea-king’s home and the eve of the day!

Synopsis

Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser had been sailing the Inner Sea on a sloop called the Black Treasurer since escaping Lankhmar after the events of “Lean Times in Lankhmar” when they arrive at a cliff wall blocking the Inner Sea from the Outer Sea. The sea is as calm as a lake with no wind. Nothing terribly outre so far, but the next group of details is a doozy. The bow of their boat is overhanging a hole in the ocean that extends down to the seafloor. Scattered across the sea surface are numerous divots with skinnier air passages plunging downward. Hanging from the bowsprit is a rope extending into the depths with Fafhrd already descended to the bottom. The Gray Mouser is looking down from the boat with trepidation. The Mouser finally joins him, if only to save Fafhrd from his foolishness. A “tent” of air allows both to walk upon the sea floor, explore, and seek out the sea-girls as promised in the old Simorgyan legend.

Science

Leiber has a lot of fun describing the optical distortion between the air well and the surrounding water. The well is circular and as such, the wall of water is concave and spreads the light outward from an object causing it to appear smaller, as explained in Scientific American.

His arms and shoulders ached. His palms burned. A monstrously fat grouper swam up to the tube and followed him down it, circling. The Mouser glared at it menacingly and it turned on its side and opened an impossibly large moon-crescent of mouth. The Mouser saw the razor teeth and realized it was the shark he'd seen or another like it, tinied by the lens of the tube. The teeth clashed, some of them inside the tube, only inches from his side.

Insights

Howard Andrew JonesIt’s astonishing to me that a tale can evoke such wonder and delight and remain so simple. I mean “simple” as in plot structure, because “When the Sea-King’s Away” is ornamented with wonderful descriptions, moments of humor and character and even suspense . . .

Bill WardIt’s an extremely impressive and compelling tale, meticulously imagined. The detailed descriptions of the water funnel, for example, went beyond scene setting purposes or simple wonderment to create real tension. And the tension of course created suspense, but it also created some of the funniest scenes in the series. Everything Leiber does here serves multiple purposes in the story, and its those elements that really take over from the plot, simple as it is.

Reviews

Nehwon Gazetteer

Cities

No-Ombrulsk, Ool Hrusp.

Distance

The Sea King's Lair is a day's fast sail from No-Ombrulsk.

Geography

Curtain Wall, Inner Sea, Outer Sea, Sea King’s Lair, Simorgya.

Gods

Gods of Lankhmar.

Magic

The whole premise of this story relies on a magic ritual being performed. A sea-witch with a lash in each hand is spinning a half-dozen tops on a table that are sympathetically connected to air spouts providing air to the sea floor and an air tunnel providing access.

Sympathetic Elements

  • Spinning tops = Air spouts & Air well
  • Golden bowl with water = Monitoring apparatus
  • Model of boat = The Black Treasurer

Ritual Elements

  • The witch has to maintain the spinning tops and cannot do anything else.
  • The elaborate setup

She held a short whip in either hand, the webs folded outside her bent knuckles, and with these whips she maintained and directed the swift spinning of a half dozen objects on the polished table top. What these objects were it was impossible to say, except that they were roughly oval. Some by their semi-transparency as they spun might have been large rings or saucers, others actual tops by their opacity. They gleamed silver and green and golden and they spun so swiftly and moved in such swift intersecting orbits as they spun that they seemed to leave gleaming wakes of spin in the misty air behind them.

Monsters

Three dead sailors and a squid wielding eight bastard swords.

Royalty

Queen of the East.

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