It was hard to get away from the Vagary outside salvage assignments without Elias finding out. I wasn’t ready to tell him. The way Uli had been, I was sure I would be thrown off the Vagary. I just wasn’t sure if it would be under Elias’ orders or against his protests… Either way, I wasn’t eager to find out. Having that storm brewing on the horizon didn’t dampen my urge to be in the water and did less to curb my growing infatuation with her. Elias kept Vagary fairly close to the shoreline this time of year, salvaging the remains of those who hadn’t outrun the seasonal storms. She and I met as frequently as we dared over the next few months, working out ways to communicate through the spoons and in person. Frequently Uli was my keeper, a situation that frustrated all three of us. He didn’t trust her, constantly reminding me of all of the ways I could expect to die by her hand or in her company. Even without a shared spoken language she made it abundantly clear she had even less reason to trust him. The harpoon he’d thrown offended her very soul. If Mer had souls.
I wanted to crack both their heads together. Their passive aggressive antagonism was exhausting.
Despite that, salvaging became a lot more interesting with her and Lucky around. I was able to swim far longer with Lucky in my mouth than I could without the assist, although why that was I wasn’t sure. She would guide me to wrecks faster than I could have found them on my own, sometimes taking me into deeper water than I would have attempted solo. We would both bring what was worth retrieving back to Uli, letting us get far more of what was available than I’d ever been able to. At first he refused to take anything directly from her, stubbornly insisting she hand it to me before taking it out of my hands because I was already cursed. That bullshit stopped after she let go of a locked strongbox that had been too heavy for me to move. She let him watch as it sank, refusing to haul it up again no matter how much he bellowed his disbelief and displeasure. She didn’t bring anything up for the next three excursions, keeping me company but not contributing in any way he could see. That pissed him right off. At the end of each of those days his beard was so bushy from running irritated fingers through it that he looked like he’d been hit by lightning. Those dives were more work for me but they brought him around. The work went faster when he wasn’t being an asshole. Simple, really. It took quite a while, but they got used to each other. If it was tolerance rather than friendship, well, I wasn’t complaining.
She and I had fun together, exploring wrecks while we were on the clock, reefs when I could sneak away. She and I were limited in where we could go because of my ear pressure and such, but every area we could roam through, we did. The coastal areas were everything I dreamed they would be, my wild delight in being underwater unquenchable. I wanted to see it all. She seemed to get a kick out of it, finding new things to show me, sometimes bringing me back to certain places so I could see them in differing lights and weathers. The ocean had as many moods underwave as it did atop. I carved each one into my heart the way sailors carve their names into the walls of dockside bars. She pushed me, challenging me to more difficult dives, leading me into more dangerous places, both of us addicted to the rush of the unknown. I’d never met someone as hungry as I was to know what was around the next corner, as willing to chance last moments finding out. Sanctified gods, she was amazing.
I learned a lot about what not to touch on reefs; she’d either stop me from making contact or she’d laugh at me when I ended up stung or bitten. She had a greasy paste in her bag that soothed stings and made blood clot faster—I went through the entire small pot she carried in short order as I got better about looking with my eyes instead of my hands. She made a point of showing me she’d refilled it, eyes flashing green with good humour as she whisked the lid off the jar. I would have laughed, but my mouth was full. She taught me to spearfish one morning. She was an ace with her carved bone spears, me not so much. I don’t think I’d ever seen her laugh so hard as that failed lesson. I learned to eat my fish raw, which was a revelation even if the texture was strange at first. It wasn’t just fish, though. She taught me more about what was edible in the water than I’d ever known before. She did warn me away from a few things that she could eat, indicating that they were poisonous for me but weren’t for her. I consistently failed to work up the nerve to ask her if she was poisonous. It was easier not knowing. She even took me pearl diving. Uli unbent enough to laugh when I told him about it, leaving the little pouch with my gleanings in his enormous hand. He started covering for us when I lost track of time after that. I should have thought of paying him off sooner.
Figuring out she was also something of a mage had been a heart racing, bewildering moment. I’d never met someone who had anything like my freakish abilities, although there were always rumours. True, she couldn’t duplicate the witchlight and I couldn’t replicate anything she could do, but that didn’t matter to me. I got the sense that magic was common among the Mer; certainly, she didn’t seem as surprised by my magic as I was by hers. It was frustrating for both of us to have to translate our thoughts into mimed action and gesture; the lack of a shared language was an ever-increasing aggravation. There was so much more we could be sharing! We did the best we could with what we had, though, and even if it wasn’t everything it could have been, it was enough. For me, at least. For now. I still wasn’t sure where she was at with whatever we were. It was easier not knowing.
Every now and then she would sing for me, usually at night before I returned to the ship, but not always. Each time was bewitching as the first, the bell-tone melodies replaying in my mind for hours and days at a time. It wasn’t just me under the spell of her songs. The first time she summoned a fever of rays my heart glowed like the sun at the sound of her voice as she called them. When the rays appeared like an armada of ghosts I thought my eyes were going to pop out of their sockets, the sight of them magnificent and unreal. I dreamed of it for weeks after. The afternoon we spent in the quiet, ponderous company of a whale shark was blissful, restorative in ways I couldn’t describe even if I wanted to.
It was coming up Midsummer which meant Elias would be giving us some shore leave. I no longer cared about spending that time in port. Leave meant I’d have a fortnight, give or take, depending on the repair schedule, without needing to report. I was already planning to spend it with her if she was around, daydreaming little islands where I could sleep on the beach and find enough to eat, hoping there would be something interesting nearby for us to explore together. She really enjoyed cave systems. That might be too much to ask for, but I crossed my fingers anyway. In the weeks approaching Midsummer we barely saw each other; I’m not sure where she went, but taps on my spoon still came throughout the day, so she was okay, just busy. I tapped back and kept myself busy, too, helping my father-ish person handle all the finalizations that came with putting into dock for a while.
I wouldn’t say Elias and I were affectionate people. We loved each other, sure. But hugs and all that wasn’t his style and I’d never had anyone else to learn another style from. We got along just fine, though, better and better as I got older. I knew that he sometimes regretted pulling me from that wreck. We were candid that way. I can’t blame him. Who takes a toddler off a cay and raises her at sea? Only someone who hadn’t really thought it through. It was a wonder I hadn’t died, either from falling overboard or being thrown. I thanked him occasionally for choosing to keep me. We were candid that way, too. It didn’t matter that we weren’t blood. I’d do anything for him, because he’d done everything for me. We were family. Blood is for people who can’t keep their promises.
We were drawing up the pay packets the night before we expected to make port, sitting in the well-lit haven that was his cabin. The sea was calm, the men were keeping their noses clean, and all was as right with our floating world as it got.
“Uli tells me you have a girlfriend,” Elias said casually, marking off something in his ledger as I counted coins.
I froze in my hunched position and then slowly looked up from the tabletop, the coin I was holding dropping from my nerveless fingers with a weighty clunk. Bloody hell.
“Given as how you are the only woman on this boat, I conclude this to mean you’ve been up to something for a while now.” He sounded incredibly casual, but the way he was trying to put me at ease wasn’t something he did all that often. Usually when we have something to say it comes out plain. Saves on bullshit.
I couldn’t even stammer. I’m sure my eyes were bigger than the bowls we’d eaten dinner out of.
“He tells me she’s quite something. Clever, strong, consistent. Says she’s been helping you with the salvaging. I asked him, you see. He didn’t rat you out. He actually asked me to not bring this up with you, to let you raise it when you were ready, but I didn’t feel like waiting. You’ve been coming back with more than you usually do the past few months. Not that I’m not grateful,” he said, with a tilt toward the cashbox, “because I am. I’m just surprised you didn’t say anything.”
I wasn’t in shit, that much was clear from his tone. I sat up straighter. “I thought you’d leave me on a cay. She’s Mer, Elias.”
“Killick,” he sighed, slightly impatiently. My nickname only sounded right when he said it. “Why would I do that?” He carried on with his work, trying to make this one more conversation like so many others we’d had.
The normalcy of his actions did make it easier to talk to him, somehow. I went back to sorting my coins. “I don’t know. The way Uli was freaking out at the beginning, I figured you’d have to. That the crew would demand it because of all of the stories…”
He nodded in a non-committal way, acknowledging what I’d said without actually confirming anything was correct. “The stories are stereotypes, my dear. There may be grains of truth in them, but they’ve been covered by the nacre of retelling until they are largely something other than what they began as. Besides, I’m the captain,” he reminded me, dryly. “They have a problem with my orders, they know the drill.”
I was floored by the implications of his words. “Elias, you can’t sail without a crew.”
“There’s always crew for hire, Killick. I won’t sail without my daughter.”
My eyes stung. I covered it up by scooping the pile I’d just counted into the awaiting leather pouch. We didn’t cry. Wasn’t the done thing. We also didn’t apologize, although I felt I should for doubting what his reaction would be. “Thank you for choosing me,” I managed once I was sure my voice wasn’t going to waver.
He nodded, watching me intently. “Every time. Never doubt it.”
That was our way. Other people said ‘I love you’. We said this.
“I want to spend leave with her. While you’re all in port,” I said in a rush, trying to not wring the leather pouch.
He wasn’t surprised. That was part of what made him such a great captain. He was hardly ever surprised. “I think if you can, you should. Uli figures you’d like some privacy. Have you talked to her about it?”
I shrugged, trying to frame my frustration as sarcasm. “I’m sure he told you she and I can’t exactly talk.”
“He said something to that effect, yes. There are some ways around that if you have enough money, though.” He looked lost in thought, tapping his pen on the edge of his ledger.
“Say again?” I was sure I’d misheard him.
“We can talk to some of the vendors, see what is out there. There are potions for changing shape, some artifacts that let people speak with birds or animals. They’re expensive if you can find them at all, but they are out there. Imperial magic, you know.” He wasn’t lying. That was part of what made him such a great father-ish person. He hardly ever lied.
Flying fish started up in my gut. “That shit doesn’t get this far out of the colonies. We don’t have the money for that,” I blurted out, overwhelmed. Hope is a tricky bastard.
He raised an eyebrow at me. “You have a Mer who fetes your presence with gold and gems and you don’t think we have money enough to get you what you need to talk to her?”
Well, when he put it that way… I’m sure I looked as shocked as I felt because he laughed then, the sound of it as warm as the lamplight. He had such a great laugh. I joined in, chuckling weakly, my brain spinning, wondering what I’d say to her, what she might say back… It took me a minute to realize he was still talking to me.
“… I’d like to meet her at some point. We’d have to work out a way to make that happen, away from the Vagary though. You are right, most of the crew would be obnoxious about her presence.”
This was a lot to take in. I shook my head firmly. “I won’t promise that. Especially if I can’t actually talk it through with her first. Uli might call her my girlfriend, but I don’t even know her name. We spend a lot of time together and I enjoy her company, but I don’t really know very much about her. I don’t even know if she feels the same way I do.”
He nodded and resisted asking whatever question was lurking in the back of his mouth. I was glad. Too much confession is awkward. We were candid, sure. But years of being candid had taught us that there’s a line, and that it shouldn’t be crossed. “Well, we will see what the market turns up. I promise I’ll do what I can to help, Tilly.”
I gave him a grateful smile. I realized I’d have to swallow my pride long enough to apologize and thank Uli for trying to convince Elias to let me bring it up in my own time. That was a considerate thing, even if it hadn’t worked out that way. Elias and I chatted about less important things after that, even making a few bets on who was going to get arrested or have their nose broken first. Like you do.
I floated on my back in a shallow bay a few weeks later, Lucky in my mouth and a sturdy gold chain with a rutilated topaz pendant around my neck. I was fidgeting with my spoon as I basked in the sunlight, aware that my nose was starting to burn. I was starting to drift off when I felt her fingertips score up the soles of my feet. I pulled my knees to my chest out of reflex, tipping myself over into the water. I accidentally spit Lucky out with my startled sputtering but the little critter flared bright blue until I scooped it up again. I stuck my tongue out at her before settling Lucky back on it. She stuck her tongue out in return, something in her spiny brow ridges making it far more suggestive than my insolence had been. She curled her long fingers in a wave and I grinned and waved back in the same way. Caught somewhere between cocky and nervous, I stood up in the shallow water, carefully withdrawing another gold chain with a similar pendant from where it had been burning a hole in my pocket. I really needed to get this over with now that she was here. She eyed it with curiosity, catching it neatly when I tossed it to her. She couldn’t open the clasp, though, her pointed fingertips skipping over the tiny mechanism no matter what she did. She threw it back to me and tossed her hair imperiously, indicating with a shoulder shrug that I should come solve the problem.
She kept the spines between her shoulder blades down as I carefully stepped to stand behind her, mindful of all of her various tail fins. I’d stepped on one once while we were digging for clams and hated how much it had hurt her. She held the weight of her hair away from her neck as I settled the chain in place and closed the clasp. The gold harmonized with the slight iridescence of her sandy scales and flashed vividly against her crimson stripes. I hadn’t had much of a choice, take it or leave it, but I was still glad that the chain hadn’t been garish. Some of the artifact jewelry Elias and I had been shown had been gaudy as hell. I pulled my hands away self-consciously and returned to where I had been. This had better work.
Her eyes widened, brightening to an emerald green briefly before fading to their more usual black. :Hi, Yourself.: Her words were in my head somehow, the same way that Lucky helped me bypass regular breathing. It was fascinating and really, really weird.
:So this is strange.: I couldn’t believe how shy I was feeling all of a sudden. I’m never shy. It made no sense! I’d finally gotten what I wanted. Where were all of the words I’d been practicing?!
:It is.: She grinned, rolling her shoulder behind her, one of her self-conscious gestures. :We should swim.:
I nodded, relieved. That much we knew how to do. I pulled my goggles on, glad to have something to do with my hands so they weren’t fluttering uselessly around now that they were empty. I hadn’t been this nervous around her since I first thought she might be poisonous. Once my goggles were settled, I walked out of the shallows and slipped into a surface dive. She kept pace with me easily, her tail fins floating around her like veils on soft breezes. We drifted into the deeper water, keeping an eye on each other in a way that was very different than the last time we had seen each other.
:Where’s the big one?: She mimed the giant bicep she used to describe Uli.
:Is that his name?:
I grinned. :Yeah, that’s his name. He’s in port. With the rest.:
She shifted her lower jaw, a gesture that meant she was confused. It had taken me a while to figure that one out. :Port?:
:Where the ships go to land.:
She nodded. :Harbour. Port is a landed beverage.:
I shifted my jaw momentarily. :I hadn’t thought of that.:
She grinned. :So you’re alone then?:
I nodded, slowly. :I am.:
:You trust me that much?:
:You don’t know me. Should you?:
:You haven’t tried to eat me yet.:
She laughed, the silvery sound of it lush in my mind. The sound of it made flying fish kick up in my stomach. :I’m really glad you are no longer scared of my teeth.:
:I’m Cerys’Hanno, if it helps. Now you can say you know me.:
I rolled her name around in my mind. I’m not sure what I’d expected her to be called by, but that hadn’t been it. It seemed too long somehow, formal in a way that didn’t match with the adventurous personality I’d grown so fond of. :You have a beautiful name.:
She made a slightly sour face. :It’s one of those family tradition things. I prefer Hanno.:
That was a better fit in my head. I nodded. :Pleased to… learn your name? I feel like we are well beyond making each others’ acquaintance.:
Her sharp-toothed grin was roguish. :Definitely. What are you called, Wavewalker?:
Wavewalker? That sounded far more exotic than I felt. :I’m just plain old Tilly Fairweather.:
She clicked her tongue, the equivalent of a snort. :Well, plain old Tilly Fairweather, I am glad to have something to call you that you’ll answer to.:
:I’m pretty sure you could call me anything and I’d come.: I remarked without thinking, hoping it sounded more like sarcasm than the unvarnished truth as soon as the words were between us.
She gave me a look of mischievous appraisal. :When will they be back for you? Middark?:
I shook my head. :No. About a fortnight.:
She pulled up short, shifting her jaw firmly. :I don’t understand.:
:I’m here for the next fourteen days or so.:
:Did they abandon you?: Her eyes were narrow and briefly flashed a venomous yellow. I saw the spines along her back rise, like hackles on a cat.
:No! Not at all. This is normal, we all get time off-ship a few times a year. I’m spending mine here.:
She relaxed again, spines settling. :It is a nice place. There’s good fishing here.:
I looked at her sideways, the edges of my goggles distorting my vision. :I was hoping you’d figure out where I was.:
:I was hoping you were hoping.: She tilted her head to the side, looking at me. :You’re attractive when your cheeks do that.:
I blushed harder.
We swam in silence for a bit, me trying to regain control of my face, her pretending to not notice my struggle. Off to my right I could see small clouds of sand drifting up off the seafloor and I changed direction to go check it out. It took me a while to spot the source, a tiny puffer almost the same colour as the sand. It was moving in a large circle, periodically stopping to dig into the sand with its back fins, pushing the fine grains into ridges and piles. From above I could see that the piles were meticulously spaced, but I had no idea how it knew that. The arrangement was amazing, like a sunburst. It seemed impossible that such a tiny fish with no tools was the architect of such a large pattern, but the evidence was right in front of me.
:It’s how he attracts a mate.: Hanno was smiling, something softer than her usual.
:That seems like a lot of effort.:
:It is. They work on it light or dark for a week, shaping it and holding the shape against the current.:
I raised my eyebrows in surprise. :That’s more than ‘a lot’.:
She shrugged, carefully keeping her tail from disturbing the sand near the worksite. :In the end, devotion is the sum total of diligence and intent. Why not give it to something that you find worthy?:
I nodded slowly, thinking it over.
:The Nereus Alon give medallions in that shape when we bond with a partner. Because partnering is work, the managing of countless little things that if not tended well unmake the beauty of togetherness.: She watched me expectantly. I had no idea what she was waiting for.
I nodded again, more slowly. :I don’t really know what to say to that. I’ve never really been around anyone who lived with a partner. That’s not how my crew works.:
She shifted her jaw. :That is bizarre.:
It was my turn to shrug. :Probably. Doesn’t make it any less true.:
:Where are your parents? Your siblings?:
I gave the puffer one last look and started to pull myself past the display, hoping it would get us past this conversation, too. It’s always so awkward. :My parents died when I was a kid. Shipwrecked. There was a baby with them, it didn’t make it either. Elias found me, decided to keep me.:
She moved to keep pace with me. :So he’s your family, then? Does he have a wife?:
I nodded. :Yeah, him and the crew. No, Elias isn’t married, unless it’s to the sea. He’s said that a few times.:
She rolled her shoulder. :Strange. That is very different from my situation. I didn’t mean to distress you by asking.:
I waved it away. :You didn’t know. It’s not like we’ve had the chance to talk about it. It was a long time ago, I don’t really remember them. Elias and The Vagary are what I know. No shame in that.: Maybe the last was a little defensive. I tried.
:None at all: Her agreement made me feel slightly less uncomfortable with the whole conversation.
:What about you?:
:I am the fifth of nine children, six boys and three girls. My parents are insufferably happy together. It’s all kinds of crowded and busy at home, so I try to get away as much as I can. As long as I deal with my responsibilities, they don’t much care where I get to or what I do.: She gave me a sly wink. :It has its benefits. I have a whole new occupation as a salvager that they know nothing about.:
I blushed again. :That’s a huge family. Do you all get along?:
She laughed at my disbelieving expression. :Does your crew get along all of the time? Of course not. We do what we can. It helps that my parents are often away on diplomatic trips and take two of my elder siblings with them as part of their entourage. Removes most of the stuffiness from home, if you catch the current.:
:I’m not sure I do. Your parents are diplomats?:
She shook her head, her chuckles sounding like the clicking whales make. :My parents are Neyeri. So not quite, but close enough.:
:I don’t know what that means.:
She shrugged, suddenly as awkward as I had been a moment ago.
:We don’t have to talk about this, Hanno. It’s okay. We went for months with all of this unsaid, we can go back to that if it makes it easier.:
She rolled her eyes at me. :Don’t be ridiculous. I can’t go back to having to guess all the time and neither can you.:
:I didn’t say we’d stop talking. I just said we don’t have to put everything on the table in our first conversation, that’s all.:
:I understand what you are saying. It’s just that I’ve spent months thinking about you, wanting to know all of the things that I don’t about you, and it seems unfair to ask you unending questions if I’m not prepared to let you do the same.:
My heart skipped. :You’ve been thinking about me?:
Her eyes flashed that brilliant green again. :Of course I have, you beautiful idiot. I don’t go handing out spoons to just anyone.:
:You don’t?: I must have looked like a stunned ox.
:Why would I?: She couldn’t stop snickering at my expression.
:I don’t know? You’re Mer. All I know about Mer are sea-stories.:
:I’d like to point out that if the stories were true, I’d have crushed you the first time we met, devoured you without sauce, and picked my teeth clean with your bones.: She said it dryly, with a touch of acid.
That beautiful flash of green in her eyes was nowhere to be seen. Way to wreck things, Self. :You know the stories?: I don’t know why I was surprised by this.
She tossed her hair again, rolling her shoulder and flexing her fingers on that hand. She was angry. :Quite a few. My people are killed all the time because of those damn stories.:
I cringed. :Now it’s me who’s offending you.:
:Not you.: She shook her head as if trying to clear it. :More like landers in general. We’ve been at war for a long time, Tilly.:
She gave me a look that was somewhere between disbelief and disheartened acceptance. :Yes, war. And that makes talking to you a very risky proposition.:
Impulsively I reached out and took her hand in mine, squeezing it quickly before dropping it again. :I know that feeling.:
:I know you do.: She rolled her shoulder again. :I suppose we have to talk about all of this, but does it have to be right now?:
I shook my head, emphatically. :No. It does not. Let’s swim.:
We spent the next three days exploring the local reefs, sharing meals and memories. Being able to actually talk to each other was both revealing and a bit shocking, because we had to accept the reality of each other’s words rather than imagining what the other was likely thinking. I’m pretty sure we disappointed each other a few times when we did or said something that was counter to what the other expected, but it couldn’t be helped. Each time she gave me her cocky grin or a sarcastic rebuttal I loved her more. I definitely hadn’t anticipated her delightfully biting sense of humour. That was a pleasant surprise. We dove with sharks for the first time, something she told me she’d been wanting to do with me for quite a while. It was safer to do now that we could actually talk to each other. Sharks are almost as mythical as Mer for me. Swimming with them was an awe-inspiring experience. I asked her about the Great Whites and she shook her head vehemently, saying that the Mer avoided the Great Ones because they had a curse in each tooth. Learning the Mer myths was fascinating.
Our days were spent in the water, our evenings with me on the beach and her in the shallows. Once we got comfortable talking, I don’t think we shut up for more than a few hours. Most of those where because I desperately needed to sleep. Damned biology. It was a little strange be having these introductory types of conversations and being able to pepper them with months’ worth of shared memories. Strange in a good way, though. I had never learned so much about someone else, never shared as much in return. Leave was flying by almost as quickly as our words flew between us. I was thinking about that one evening as we watched the sun set. I must have sighed or something, because she looked over at me quizzically.
:I’m going to have to go soon and I really don’t want to.:
She nodded, sighing a bit herself. :I don’t want you to, either. I thought that being around you for so long would make me sick of you, but the opposite seems to have happened:
:Me, too.: she replied with a cheeky grin.
:So now what?: I asked with a grin of my own.
:I think I need to tell you about my parents before we can have that conversation: she replied, steeling herself.
And she proceeded to do so. Her parents were definitely more than diplomats: they were monarchs. They, and the other Mer royal lines, had been at war with the landers for longer than she’d been alive because the landers on their west border had been abducting and killing Mer for decades. Fuck my life.
:Tilly, love, I’m sorry, I’m sorry…: She scooted up onto the sand beside me, her tail fins stirring the shallows in agitation. :Why are you crying?:
I couldn’t find words and brushed the shocked tears away abruptly. Of course she would be more than a myth, more than amazing. She would be impossible. All of the hope that had been blooming in my heart wilted under the icy wind of knowledge. I stared at her uncomprehendingly.
She tucked strands of my hair behind my ears with gentle fingers. :It’s going to be okay, love. We are going to make this work. Somehow. If you want to.:
She called me love. My heart bloomed again. :Of course I want to!:
She grinned fiercely then, grabbing my hands and holding them tightly. :You are the answer to questions I didn’t even know I had.:
I raised her knuckles to my lips, kissing them. :You are the song in my blood. I never want to be without you.:
She leaned into me, resting her forehead against mine. :That settles that, then.:
I nodded and relaxed into the steadiness of her breathing, wishing I had words for the feeling overtaking me. :I’ve been wanting to tell you that for months.:
:You, too?: she asked, quirking a sharp-toothed grin at me. Her eyes made emeralds look like dust.
I couldn’t reply. She had called me love.
:I’ll take that as a yes.:
*The pufferfish architect is real: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B91tozyQs9M