Time passed very strangely underwater.
She had sunk so deep that day and night were equally dark; death and unconsciousness and wakefulness blended into one another until Quỳnh could not tell the difference between them. Pain gave way to struggle gave way to resignation gave way to despair gave way to rage gave way to pain again; her lives passed like waves over her in an ever-repeating cycle. All was darkness, and water, and death. Fists against metal, blood in her mouth, fruitless, endless, a constant scream no one could hear.
And so when a break came in the pattern, she did not realize right away what had happened, or that it was real.
Something hard hit her cage, something more solid than the now-familiar press of waves. Some force moved her, but she did not have time to register it as unusual. Water cut off her breathing, as it always did, and she fell into death.
When she gasped awake again, it was still dark. It was still cold. Whatever was underneath her was still hard. But whatever was above her was not hard metal, but something slippery and warm and flowing like—not like water, no, more like cloth.
She could not quite grasp this, hope a foreign feeling to her after the water, and she closed her eyes and died. Or maybe only slept.
The next time consciousness found her, she was aware enough of herself to take stock. It was air, yes, air in her lungs, not water. It was dark, but not the dark of the ocean floor, cold and endless and alien. This was the dark of night in a room without a fire. She was not in a room, though. She didn’t think so. She put a hand to the hardness underneath her, and found it to be stone, rough and unfinished. Above her was the thing she had thought of as warm cloth before, but it was not warm cloth. It was…it was a fresh animal skin, so fresh that it had not been cleaned. Seal, probably. She pulled her hand away in revulsion.
Consciousness brought thoughts that had not had time to grow in her many short lives underwater. Andromache. Yusuf. Andromache. Triumph warred with fear. Quỳnh was free, but what of her companions? Her beloved might yet be in the dungeon at Donnington Castle, awaiting further torment. Had Yusuf yet reached England to save her? If Andromache had gotten away, no doubt she had gathered Yusuf, and the two of them would search for her. Or perhaps they would assume that she, too, had broken free, and they would wait for her at one of the pre-arranged meeting places. Fuck, how long had she been down there? Where the hell was she? How had she gotten here?
Carefully feeling her way around the rough rocks of her resting place, she concluded that she was in some kind of cave—no human hand had made this place, surely. Her eyes gradually adjusted to the dark, and she made her way toward the faint place where the blackness of night faded to gray.
It was night—true night, not the endless night of the waters, but a clear, moonlit evening, the air crisp and cold, the moon standing out as sharply against the night sky as if it had been cut out of white paper. In front of her was the ocean, its waves lapping tamely at the rocky beach, and Quỳnh felt hysterical laughter in her throat. When she opened her mouth, it came out as a scream.
She was surrounded. She was alone. She had traded one prison for another, a tiny metal cell under the water for a tiny stone island surrounded by it. Loneliness clutched at her throat, a cold, hopeless solitude she had not felt in a long, long time.
Despite the cold, she could not bring herself to go back into that dark cavernous hole, its walls not as close as the walls of her iron cage but just as confining. She turned her face from the water and curled up on her side. Small rocks dug into her skin, and the wind made her shiver, but she was free, and that was enough to settle the part of her that had struggled for so long like a panicked animal in a trap. As content as she could be under the circumstances, she slept once again.
She had not yet opened her eyes when she woke next, every nerve alert and the hair prickling at the back of her neck. It was not light that woke her, but the sense that came, even when asleep, that something was moving behind her. A woman could not fight armies of men for thousands of years without developing the instinct for telling the sounds of tree and ocean and wind from those that living creatures made when they moved. Slowly, as if still asleep, she rolled to her other side, grasped a rock in the fingers of the hand curled under her chin, and opened her eyes.
A man was peering at her from the water in the dim light of the early dawn. The light was poor, but her eyes were sharp, and she could make out a pale face, a beak-like nose, deep-set eyes. He wore no shirt, his white shoulders peeking above the dark waves.
She sat up and put on the best mask of harmlessness she could manage. “Please, help me!” she cried. “I’ve been shipwrecked here!”
The man did not move, did not speak, but continued to float in the water and stare at her.
Quỳnh wondered if she had spoken in a tongue that this man did not understand. Even if she had, she thought with some irritation, he ought to have been able to understand the tones of a woman in distress. “Please!” she sobbed again, squeezing a few tears from her eyes. “Help!”
He blinked, his blank facial expression unmoving. Quỳnh felt a trickle of uneasiness along her spine and shivered with more than cold. What man, she asked herself, as she should have asked herself before, swam in such cold water with no clothing or boat in sight? There was no land visible. No sound of human habitation. How far had he swum to get here? Where had he come from?
As the sun lifted its face over the horizon and the gray of the morning was split with gold, the man moved closer, with a movement that was neither walking nor swimming, something faster than both. Quỳnh’s pulse pounded in her ears, an echo of the water on the rocks around her. Danger, a voice in her cried, danger.
He was close enough to her now that she could see his hands. They were oddly shaped. Four fingers only, with no thumb, but the hands were wider than a normal man’s, disproportionate to his arms. A webbing of skin connected the fingers, which boasted long, sharp claws at the end.
This was impossible, she thought. She was dreaming again. But no, the man—the creature—was opening its mouth, revealing teeth that were too long and sharp for a human head.
“Get away!” she shrieked, throwing her rock at the creature with all the force she could muster, straight at its head. The beast moved with dizzying speed, and so rather than knock it out, the rock only scraped its forehead. It was still moving forward.
Quỳnh had nowhere to run but the cave. She made for it as quickly as she could, ignoring the pain from the rocks scraping her bare feet and the exhaustion in her still-weary limbs, and squeezed her way into the cavern’s small entrance. She could not rest yet, though. Perhaps the entrance was not so small that the creature could not squeeze in after her. She picked up another rock from the floor and squatted near the door, waiting to bash its head in if it tried to get in.
The space of a hundred heartbeats passed. Two hundred. The rock grew warm in Quỳnh’s hands. Outside, no sound, no movement. She could not bring herself to let go of the rock, though.
She had heard of such things. Many lands had their water spirits—kappa and ningyo, lingyu and rusalkas, the sirens that the Greeks and Latins had written about. Quỳnh knew the tale of Odysseus, the name of Suvannamaccha. Andromache had mentioned before that there was truth in the stories, that there were creatures as clever as humans who lived in the water. Sea monsters with human faces who lived to lure sailors to their doom.
But then, Andromache also said she had seen such things as elephants covered in hair and lizards or alligators as long as six or seven men laid end to end. If she had, Quỳnh thought that they must have been part of an earlier time, creatures that no longer existed or perhaps never had existed, or at least had never existed as Andromache remembered them, anyway. Quỳnh’s love had a sharp mind, and she remembered much that the world around her forgot, but she would be the first to admit that the thousands of years she had roamed before Quỳnh lived sometimes faded into the mists of her mind like a forgotten dream.
Quỳnh was not dreaming, though. She owed Andromache an apology for her unworthy thoughts, her lack of faith. And she would live long enough to deliver it.
Fear faded quickly to impatience. If the thing ate her, then it ate her, but she would survive it. Ocean or no ocean, she was not one to cower in a cave for long. If this creature took her on, it would find her more difficult to eat than it realized, and Quỳnh would have a memorable tale for Andromache and Yusuf. She would be damned if she let it drag her down into the water again.
Once was enough. If the creature wanted a fight, it would have one.
Outside, the sun had risen a bit higher on the horizon, casting a golden net over the shoreline. Quỳnh looked around her, peering out over the waves surrounding the island, but she could see nothing.
No, that wasn’t quite true. There was a lump of something at the edge of the water; closer examination revealed it to be a dead fish, so freshly killed that it was still bleeding from what looked like claw marks.
She frowned. Had it been the creature’s own meal, left when Quỳnh threw the rock at it? Perhaps so. But it seemed that the fierce fish-men of legend were cowards when faced with opposition and a stone in the face.
Quỳnh had spent enough time traveling to be able to strike fire from stones in her sleep, but the shreds torn from the white shift the English magistrates had allowed her were not enough to keep a fire going long enough to cook the fish, so she cleaned it and ate it raw. She had not realized how ravenously hungry she was until she ate it. She almost wished she had left the fish alone. She could not really starve to death, but now she could feel how badly her body craved more, the sharp emptiness in her gut as brutal as a wound. She wiped her hands and mouth and went to see if there was anything else to eat.
The island had a few weeds to offer, which she ate, and some seaweed, which she did not—the salt would only increase her thirst, which increased as the day went on. There was not much else. The island was a little spot of desert, probably no more than twenty feet in diameter and covered in rocks and battered bits of shell. Hell of a spot you’ve found yourself, Quỳnh, said Andromache’s voice in her mind.
Quỳnh irritably silenced the voice. The sun was bright despite the cold, and the wind cut easily through the shift, and Quỳnh felt like jerky hung out to dry in the air, shriveled and shrinking. She would have killed for fresh water, but alas—it seemed she must either wait for rain, or try and swim for land. She wanted to do neither, though, exhaustion heavy in her bones, so she went back into the cave and lay down and covered herself with her disgusting seal-skin blanket.
We’ve slept in worse places, Andromache would have said if she had been there.
We, Quỳnh would have told her. Why should I have to put up with this rocky, cold bed and be also apart from you? Why should I have to fight sea monsters by myself, when you and I have sworn to be at each other’s sides?
The real Andromache would have wrapped an arm around Quỳnh and stroked a hand through her hair. But Quỳnh could not imagine the real Andromache’s touch into existence, and despite her fatigue, it was a long time before she fell asleep.
She could not wallow in loneliness, though. When she woke the next morning, sore and thirsty and as tired as she had been when she went to sleep, she straightened her back and gritted her teeth, determined that no island or sea monster or English magistrate would keep her and her family separated for long. She devoted the day to trying to figure out where she was, reading the sky, testing the water, swimming out as far as she could before tiredness and the fear of being lost to the ocean again drew her back to the stony shore of her island. It was not so far from the coast of England where the bastards had dropped her, she thought, though seemingly too far to swim easily to more inhabited land. She was still far north, and if the wind and the short days were any indication, it was closer to the winter than the summer solstice, though how many winters had passed since she and Andromache had been captured was unsettlingly unclear.
As for the monster, it circled the island, farther out than Quỳnh could easily swim. It drew no closer to her, but as she tested her endurance and peered as hard as she could to see signs of land elsewhere, she saw its head floating just above the waves, its face turned in her direction, its tail occasionally sending a spray of water sailing in an arc above its head. Apparently, it was waiting for its chance to move in for the kill.
Good luck, she thought. I would not wish to be the man or beast who got in my way right now.
No determination could bring the island closer to the mainland, however, nor could Quỳnh manifest a boat simply by willing it to do so, and so with grim resignation she built a fire, this time with dried seaweed as fuel, and tried to coax some warmth into her bones. The ghosts of Andromache and Yusuf, their laughter and comradery and complaints about the food, haunted her. Quỳnh would have given almost anything to see Andromache’s face.
The cold winter sun beat miserably on her the next few days. She caught a fish one morning and roasted it, which replenished her energy a bit, but the lack of water was now as big of a problem as the lack of food. Some moisture from morning mists clung to the walls of the cave, but this was hardly enough to sate her thirst. The sun felt as if it were mocking her, providing no warmth but simply drying her out like a dead leaf.
The sea monster neither left nor attacked, keeping up its solitary vigil in the waters surrounding Quỳnh’s island.
It was, in a way, very much like those miserable days after her city had fallen to Zhao Tuo and she had wandered, a lonesome wretch, a woman without a family, a champion without a king to defend, a legend who had become a curiosity who had become an annoyance. She had been alone then, too, thirsty and without a roof over her head and without purpose, until Andromache had found her.
Well. That was one difference. Quỳnh most certainly had a purpose now. It would take time to make her way off this island and back to her lover and her brother in arms, but she had time. It was the one thing she had in abundance. She crawled into her seal-skin bed and told herself to dream not of the past, but of the future.
The next day brought clouds, which was a welcome relief, and another dead fish, which was equally welcome if more of a mystery. Quỳnh had the oddest sensation that she was being fed like a stray animal.
Unlikely as it seemed, there was only one creature that she had seen who could do such a thing. The pained loneliness in her heart took on a shade of curiosity. Perhaps she was not so alone on this island as she had first thought. Perhaps she had been foolish to believe in old sailors’ tales, after all.
She was not given to patience, ordinarily, but she was certainly capable of it when necessary. She had stayed perfectly still for hours and days waiting to ambush a warlord or bandit, and she could stay perfectly still now. She found a rock to hide behind and settled into a bearable position. If her suspicions were correct, her mysterious benefactor might return with the morning tides, so long as she was not visible on the shoreline.
The morning was misty. A less sharp-eyed woman might not have seen the shaggy-haired head and pale shoulders emerging from the water, but Quỳnh did not miss the form of the sea creature materializing out of the white fog on the ocean’s surface. The creature was the same as before, down to the partially healed cut on its head from Quỳnh’s rock. It—he? The creature’s torso was flat, whatever that meant—carried yet another dead fish in its hand, which it laid gently on the stones of the beach, above the tideline where it would not immediately be washed away.
Quỳnh smiled, huffing out a triumphant breath, and the creature’s bearing turned taut and alert. It turned its head to scan the beach, light-colored eyes clearly searching for something.
Searching for her. It was only polite to oblige.
“If you’re going to keep coming by,” she said, standing up from her low crouch, “you ought to make yourself useful and bring me a boat, or at least some fresh water.”
The creature blinked but made no other sign of surprise, tilting its head in her direction. Quỳnh had no reason to suppose that it understood English, even if it was an English creature, but she thought it even less likely that it spoke another of the many languages she knew, and so she tried again.
“I owe you for the fish,” she added, “but I’m not so grateful that I’ll let you kill me without a fight, so if you’re trying to lure me to a watery grave again, I feel obliged to tell you that I’m not so easy to kill.”
More silence. More blankness. Then a ripple of motion caught Quỳnh’s eye, and a large tail, shaped perhaps like a dolphin’s but covered in bluish-greenish-gray scales, slapped the surface of the water.
It was hard to tell what to make of all this. The creature was not making any attempt to kill Quỳnh. It was also not singing in a charming voice like the sirens, or sabotaging her cavern like Suvannamaccha had Hanuman’s bridge, or pulling her into the water like Jenny Greenteeth. If it really had been the one bringing her food, perhaps it meant her no harm. “If you come as a friend,” said Quỳnh tentatively, “then I will be a friend to you, I swear it.” She lifted her hands to show that they were empty of weapons.
This caught the creature’s attention, and it stared at her with discomfiting intensity. Then, slowly, it raised its own hands, the webbing between the fingers stretched taut and shining as blue-green as its tail, unnaturally bright amidst the fog.
Mimicking her, or demonstrating that it, too, came unarmed?
“Most curious,” said Quỳnh, to herself as much as to the creature. “What are you, my friend?”
It blinked again. She had the oddest sensation in her mind, a kind of tingling at the edge of her consciousness like a mental hand brushing against hers. Without knowing why she thought so, she thought that the creature, too, was wondering what she was.
With another flap of its tail, it dove under the water and was gone again, leaving only the fish it had brought behind.
To Quỳnh’s mingled relief and irritation, it began raining around sunset that evening and did not stop raining for two days, occasionally spicing up the showers with a thunderstorm. At last, Quỳnh could drink her fill, and at first it had been a joy to sip fresh water and rinse the sand and salt out of her mouth. But it made standing outside dreadfully unpleasant, and it seemed to scare off her new friend. She was trapped in the cave with nothing but her own thoughts to keep her company.
With the wind blowing, the floor of the cavern was soon spattered with puddles, the wet gusts of the storm cutting through the thin white shift Quỳnh wore as if it were nothing. Though the discomfort was still a great deal better than being underwater again, Quỳnh was finding that she had lost any taste she’d ever had for being cold and wet. Andromache would laugh to see her now—how Andromache had grumbled when the rain wet their tents in Sicily, in their days fighting in Eunus’s rebellions! How Quỳnh had mocked her, tweaking her nose and joking about her old bones! How Lykon had laughed, Andromache’s sullenness knocking away his own gloom at the rain!
Quỳnh could not stay here. She could not stay on this rocky island, in this cold and rainy country with its religious wars and its paranoia. She would find a way to leave, if she had to swim across the ocean. She would try and fail as many times as it took. She would go home to Andromache, the other half of her heart.
The morning of the third day was gray and misty, but the rain seemed finally to have ceased, and Quỳnh emerged from the cave to see if anything useful had washed up on shore in the meantime. To her shock and pleasure, the days of rain had brought a pair of large wooden boxes, or rather shipping crates. With some effort, she used a rock to smash through a wet board on one of them and pried it off to see what was within.
Inside were rolls of heavy woolen cloth, and once she got the other one opened, she found that it was filled with salted herring. Better still, both crates were large enough that the wood might truly be of use. Quỳnh hadn’t built a raft in centuries, but surely the knack would come back to her. She could not stop herself from smiling—the cloth might be rough and she might be sick of fish, but this was the best gift the island had yet given her.
But then, perhaps it was not the island at all.
Some twenty yards out, Quỳnh could spy among the waves a regular little splash, as if, perhaps, of a person swimming in place, or of a tail regularly breaching the surface.
“Is this your doing, my friend?” she called. “If so, thank you! Thank you very much!”
If the creature did not understand English, it did seem to understand the tone of her voice, as it swam closer—cautiously, slowly, no doubt wary of getting another rock to the head, but steadily. It paused a yard or two away from Quỳnh, twisting its tail back and forth underneath the water so that it could remain upright to stare at her.
“You are bringing me these things, aren’t you?” she asked. “Don’t tell me I’m going mad. The herring and the wool, and the fish from earlier?”
She had not expected an answer. The creature’s expression was blank, its large, ocean-colored eyes staring unwaveringly at her. There was nothing in its face or body to read, it made no noises she could interpret. And yet, there was an answer, of a sort. In Quỳnh’s mind’s eye, an image appeared unbidden—a ship battening its hatches against the storm, its hull creaking in protest. And down among the waves, too quiet and unobtrusive to be noticed amidst the howl of winds, the creature, waiting at the water’s surface for a crate or two to slide off the freighter’s deck.
The scene vanished like a popping bubble.
Quỳnh blinked, unsettlingly unsure of her own mind. The image had felt strikingly real, like a waking dream. Perhaps she had dreamed all of this. Perhaps her grasp on reality had finally snapped like a frayed cord under the waves, and now it generated strange images of stony islands and stone-faced fish-men, while her body drowned again and again.
Warm reassurance washed over her mind. She could not quite identify what it was she was experiencing. It was if the inside of her head was being brushed against—a feeling of comfort that she felt sure did not come from herself, a sort of mental equivalent of someone laying a steadying hand on her shoulder. It tamped down her panic, and in the confused calm that remained, more images flowed behind her eyes.
The creature had been swimming without a clear goal, exploring waters that were far from its home, when Quỳnh’s rage and fear and despair had called to it as loudly as any cry. It had been baffled once it found her, having never seen a human drown and come back to life so many times. Though it had no very high opinion of humans, even as food, it had felt sure that no creature deserved such suffering. It had slammed into the iron maiden like a battering ram, scraping arms and shoulders on the metal, to crack the lid off of Quỳnh’s rusty prison. Then it had dragged her, dead or unconscious, to a place that the creature went sometimes to avoid human fishing ships and merchant freighters and worse still, ships of war. It had watched curiously as she revived yet again; this, it thought, was something worth seeing, and it hoped that she would explain how she did it.
“Explain?” Quỳnh said aloud, hardly able to believe what she was saying, what she was—not quite hearing, but feeling as a foreign presence in her mind. She felt—lost in a way that she, who had known the world for millennia, scarcely ever did—full of wonder, curiosity, disbelieving gratitude. “I have no explanation, my friend.”
The name had been half a joke before, but now it was in earnest. She looked at the scrapes on its arms, which she had never noticed before and which were scabbing over with white raised skin like scars. Its face was not human, but it was not so unlike a human face that Quỳnh could not see in it the vulnerability of a being that had injured itself to help her simply because it could. Quỳnh had been done a thousand kindnesses over the years, by warlords and washerwomen and ditch-diggers and doctors, but to have been saved from constant death and wretchedness and starvation and sorrow by a creature with the tail of a fish and the torso of a man had to be the most marvelous kindness of all. If anyone had a claim to her friendship who was not Andromache, Yusuf, or Lykon, it was this—this—
“Do you have a name?” she asked. She could not continue thinking of it as “it” or “the creature,” not when she owed it so dearly. “My name is Quỳnh.” She pointed to herself and repeated “Quỳnh,” so that it would understand.
It made a low, eerie moan like whale song, and a new sensation entered Quỳnh’s mind—a kind of speckling of greenish-blue color and dim light and the feeling of a sharp, polished edge. Without quite knowing how she knew it, she understood this all—the wail and the light and the feeling—to be the creature’s name. His name. She knew that, too, from the sense of himself he had just given her.
“I’m sorry,” she said with sincere regret. She had gone by false names so often in her life, but it bothered her that she could not call her friend by his real name. “But I cannot say that. Is there something I can call you that will not offend you?”
That sense of warm reassurance filled her again. He felt no offense. After all, he could not say her name, either. His mouth moved with no sound behind it, and his eyes shifted to look at the water. In her mind’s eye, she now saw another ship, but this one was not battling a storm. This one was sailing on a clear green sea beneath sunny skies, the men pulling its sails speaking a northern Italian tongue. Home, Quỳnh understood. Her friend did not understand the words that the men were saying, as his people’s language was made up of thought and song and the movements of their tails, but he knew the sounds as well as he knew the sounds of waves or the rain on the water. The scene had imprinted itself upon his memory with crystalline clarity.
A sailor leaned over the railing, staring dreamily at the horizon, and her friend regarded him with mingled hunger and curiosity. From the deck, another sailor shouted, “Quit daydreaming, Nicolò!”
The memory ended.
“Nicolò?” Quỳnh asked, charmed. She had not expected that a man-eating sea creature would wish to be called by the name of a Genoese sailor. “You’d like me to call you Nicolò?”
Yes, his feeling of contentment told her.
“Then it is a pleasure to meet you, Nicolò. I owe you a great debt for rescuing me from a truly miserable fate.”
His mingled sympathy and curiosity poked at her mind, and she sighed, sitting down on the rocky sand. “I cannot tell you why I didn’t stay dead when I drowned, because I don’t know. I have never known. I usually think of it as a great gift. What is there to fear for a woman who cannot die for good? Death for me has only ever been an inconvenience, or a brief escape from an unpleasant situation. But now I know what to fear. To be trapped in a cycle of death, with no way to free myself, and no one to help me, and no escape from pain?” She swallowed. She had thought she understood fear when Lykon died, and she had realized that not even her gifts would keep her and Andromache alive and together forever. But she hadn’t, not really. “That is something to fear. I know that now.”
His thoughts crumpled in the mental equivalent of a frown, a curiosity and confusion accompanied by the scraping sensation of rough sand. How had she ended up in the water in the first place?
She swallowed, feeling wrung out by the recollection of the water. “Let us save that story for another day, my friend. I think perhaps we have shared enough memories today.” A smile was meaningless to him, so she tried to find some real cheer again, so that whatever mental powers he used to communicate would perceive her goodwill. “Perhaps we should enjoy some of your salt herrings?”
They sat just at the line where the water met the land, each on their respective side of the surf, and ate their fill. Despite the strangeness of the scene, it was actually…pleasant. Nicolò was surprised at the salty taste of the fish, but happily so, and Quỳnh found her spirits lifted by the simple fact of eating with friendly company, even if said company was not Andromache and Yusuf.
“Ah,” Quỳnh sighed when her stomach was full, “if only I had something to drink with our meal.” She supposed she could sip from the puddles that the storm had left behind on the cave floor, but she wasn’t quite thirsty enough at the moment for this idea to have much appeal.
If Nicolò could not speak, he could understand the desire that underlay her words, and he blinked at her in confusion. Were they not surrounded by water? Could she not drink as much as she liked?
“Humans cannot drink salt water,” she informed him, distracted a bit from her thirst by amusement. “It only makes us more thirsty.”
Nicolò registered this gravely. He could find her something to drink, the sense of willingness in her mind suggested. She had only to tell him what would not make her more thirsty, and he would try and take it from a ship.
A ship. The ship he had taken the crates from must have come from somewhere. A nearby port, perhaps? They were not close enough to land for Quỳnh to swim, but what did that mean to a sea creature? Excitement rose in her. Perhaps her new friend offered escape once again. “Nicolò,” she asked him, “can you tell me where we are?”
The map he gave her was detailed and very nearly useless—he understood the world in tides and features on the ocean floor, with only a fuzzy sense of coastlines and none at all of the land beyond those coasts. But he had a good memory and sense of direction, and in his mental picture of their surroundings, she recognized the channel between England and France, and the jutting peninsula of Cornwall with its jagged granite underside beneath the waves. What were the little islands off of Cornwall called? Quỳnh couldn’t remember. Doubtless Yusuf would, he had a head for such things.
But Quỳnh had a head for numbers and distances. “How long does it take you to swim to the nearest island? The nearest island with humans, I mean?”
His idea of time was as foreign to her as his idea of geography, but he, too, marked the movement of the sun and moon to track time, and Quỳnh did a few mental calculations and concluded, first, that Nicolò could swim very quickly, and second, that she was perhaps three miles from the nearest inhabited island, and from there, maybe thirty miles to the harbor at Penzance.
So little a distance. She had felt as alone as if she had been on the moon, but she was only an easy day’s ride away from towns and markets, or would have been, could horses be ridden over the sea.
They could not. But Nicolò could easily swim to the tip of Cornwall.
She slumped, feeling suddenly like a taut rope that had been cut. It was all very well and good to resolve that she would leave this island. But the idea was not just a dreamt future, now. She could be among Cornish villagers tomorrow, and she would need a way to explain who she was, and where she had come from, and why she was dressed only in a shift that would doubtless be barely better than naked to their eyes. She would need to find a subtle way to find out what year it was, if anyone knew anything about the witch trials of Reading. Assuming that Andromache was not still captive, she would make her way to Portsmouth, the agreed-upon meeting place with Andromache and Yusuf, and if they were not there, she would…she would…
She shivered, and Nicolò sent a thin tendril of concern her way.
“I’m fine,” she told him.
It was very difficult to lie to a creature who could read her feelings. She could not yet read his face, which simply seemed blank to her, but the purplish ripples of feeling he sent her made it clear that he knew she was lying and was confused by it. How annoying. She could not even be overwhelmed by thought of braving England alone without being reminded that she was not alone any longer.
She pulled a roll of rough woolen cloth from the other crate and wrapped it around herself. It wasn’t impressive cloth, but it kept a bit of the wind out, and the reminder of civilization elsewhere was a welcome one. If she’d had a needle and thread, perhaps she could make a cloak for herself and cover the torn and dirty shift. But if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
“I’m afraid I have several rather large favors to ask of you,” she said. “You owe me nothing, and I am already in your debt. But if you help me get back to land and find the others, you will have a friend as long as you live.”
Others? Other humans who do not drown? Nicolò made a sound like a dolphin’s clicking chirp, and Quỳnh understood it to be a noise of curiosity. He was astonished to hear that Quỳnh was not the only one of her kind. Was it a recent development? Were there many humans who could not drown?
A recent development? Hardly. She laughed. “There are not many of us, no. As far as I know, there have only ever been four, and one is gone. And we are none of us arrived recently.”
He chirped curiously again, and it occurred to her that she knew very little of him and his people. That the stories of their luring men to their deaths and eating them had some truth, she had gotten from his own memories. Maybe under other circumstances, it would have unsettled her more. But since at the moment she would gladly have torn the men who separated her and Andromache to pieces with her bare hands, and since it was clear that he did not consider her to be food, she was more intrigued than frightened. “How long have you been alive?” she said, answering his question with a question.
Thirty twelve-hands of tide changes was a perfectly logical answer for a sea creature to give, but a confusing one for her to hear. And this was assuming that this was in fact what he was saying—he did not think in words, but in images and feelings and colors and some sense he seemed to have that Quỳnh did not for converting the movement of water and the echoing of sounds into distance.
But this was hardly the first time that she had met a person who thought of time and space and manners in a different way than she did, and Quỳnh found herself warming to the ever-fresh challenge of understanding a new friend and how they saw the world.
It was simple enough, she concluded. There were two spring and two neap tides each month, more or less. He had four fingers on each hand, and so a ‘hand’ of tides would be a lunar month, a ‘twelve-hand’ a lunar year. He was around thirty years old.
She smiled. That was around how old she might have guessed him to be based on his appearance—it seemed that the people of the sea aged in roughly the same manner as the people of the land. Well, the people of the land that were not her and Andromache and Yusuf, anyway.
“I have been alive for far longer than that,” she told him. “I have been alive for thousands of twelve-hands of tide changes.”
He stared at her while he processed this, before he decided that he couldn’t quite wrap his head around the idea of her being thousands of years old. She could hardly blame him—it was difficult for her to wrap her head around how long Andromache had been alive, sometimes.
“Andromache is far older than me,” she said. “She was alive before the kingdom I am from even existed. Yusuf is the youngest of us—he is only a few hundred years old.” She leaned back, resting her weight on her elbows, and remembered sitting on similar shores with Andromache, resting weary feet in the water, while Lykon splashed around in the water, as playful as a child. Andromache had been a little sadder since Lykon died—perhaps Quỳnh had been, as well, though she didn’t always realize it—but Yusuf was a welcome addition to their band. Just as Lykon had, he brought new ideas, new ways of doing things. He breathed new life into an existence that sometimes threatened to petrify. To Yusuf, the sea was markets and ships and the promise of new horizons, a home that stretched across the world.
Nicolò made a low hum, and Quỳnh realized she had been silent for too long, letting her memories speak for her. Nicolò could make a dangerous spy, she thought, given the right circumstances. She brushed away nostalgia and sentiment and said, “We travel the world, trying to make use of the gifts we have been given. We defend the weak, and try to prevent those with power from abusing it too awfully.”
“To make the world more fair,” she said, knowing already that it was an inadequate response. She had no idea whether the men of the sea had any concept of fairness or justice—it could be a complicated enough idea for humans. Instead, she shifted her mind toward picturing the people they had helped in the past—travelers set upon by brigands, small farmers ground under by the force of advancing armies, escaped prisoners and slaves. More and more, Quỳnh did not trust the great men of the world to do good for its own sake or for their people’s. The movements of armies and borders brought multitudes of goods and evils and murky consequences in between. It was difficult sometimes for old eyes to see the larger picture of a thousand little things building over years and decades and centuries. But to protect and preserve the right of ordinary people to live ordinary lives, free of their lord’s oppression or armies’ destruction or the violence of the greedy, was a necessity that did not change or lessen with the times. It was a good thing to fight for.
Nicolò turned this idea over in his mind, letting Quỳnh feel the red and blue waves of his thoughts as he weighed what she had shown him. Sea people had their own ideas of honor, it seemed, ideas that would not necessarily look compassionate or just to Quỳnh’s eyes. But sea people were also individuals as humans were, and Nicolò was capable of pondering these things for himself, she was confident in that. Finally, his consciousness brushed against hers with a feeling of agreement, even satisfaction. That sounds like a good thing to do.
“So will you help me?” She cautiously reached a hand to touch his. His skin was cool to the touch, but she could feel warmth in the pulse of blood in his wrist. “Will you help me find them again?”
Under the water, Quỳnh could see the slitted gills along Nicolò’s ribs flutter as he took in a breath. In his mind was the determination of one who has been lost but now sees a pathway out of dark woods. Yes, he agreed. Yes, he would help her.
She laid out for him the route they would need to take. Though it might permit more easy camouflage if he stole a boat for her, the locals depended on their fishing boats, and given how fast he swam, it might be quicker if he were to swim to the port with her clinging to his back. This, he considered and assented to, though he told her that he would need more than her salted fish for food before making such a journey. This seemed fair to her, as impatient as she was to rejoin her companions.
When they arrived, she told him, he could leave her at the tip of Cornwall if he wanted. In truth, she had no desire either for Nicolò to be captured or injured by humans on the lookout for devils, or for him to decide he was hungry enough to try and catch a fisherman to drag down and eat. To this, he made no answer, only gently flapping his tail in the water in a considering sort of fashion.
They agreed to meet on the beach in the early morning, while the moon still hung in the sky and the frosty mists still clouded the dark horizon. Nicolò could see quite well in the dark, he informed her, and arriving in darkness would allow Quỳnh a bit more time and cover to travel without being noticed, and perhaps to steal something halfway decent to wear. It was possible that she could convince the locals she was the victim of a shipwreck, but then again it was possible that she could not—she did not know how long it had been since she went into the water, but the England that Quỳnh remembered had been suspicious of foreigners and Catholics and mouthy women, and Quỳnh was two out of three. It would be better if she could travel unseen, best if she could cobble together some veneer of respectability. Her torn, dirty white shift simply would not do.
Quỳnh lay awake half the night, wracked with thrills of excitement and nagging worries that the weather would be poor the next day and Nicolò would decide that he could not carry her in it, or worse, simply not appear. With freedom in her sights, every second of delay stretched into agony.
Her fears proved unfounded; the night was cold but clear when Quỳnh decided she could no longer sleep, and as the eastern horizon faded from black to rich dark blue, her eyes picked out the smooth, steady movement of Nicolò swimming toward her.
“Are you well-rested?” she asked.
With some amusement, he thought that he was probably better rested than her.
She was too eager to be annoyed. “I would tell you that you would be impatient to leave, too, had you been thrown into the ocean and stuck on this island for who knows how long, but I suppose that it wouldn’t bother you overly much.”
No, he thought, his mind still warm with good humor as it brushed against hers. Swimming up into shallow water, he braced himself on his elbows in the stony surf and invited her to climb on.
It occurred to her that she would be holding on in rough water to a creature not much bigger than her, a creature who might well have gone his whole life without a care for the wellbeing of a human before he met her. An unfamiliar hesitation froze her in place at the idea of once again sinking below the waves, and hysteria gripped at her throat. Frankly, she would rather he try and eat her than let her sink into the ocean again.
He peered at her, and a sensation of reassurance rolled out of him in greenish loops of thought that rubbed like a friendly cat against her. He would not let her fall; had he not successfully carried her from the depths of the waves to this island?
It was true, he had, and yet she could not step toward him. “My friend,” she murmured, “have you heard the tale of the scorpion and the tortoise?”
He had not, of course. She would not have, either, had Yusuf not been such an enthusiastic reader of Persian literature and insisted on posing to her and Andromache philosophical questions from his reading of Anvar e-Sohayli.
“It is the tale of a creature that is compelled by its nature to hurt both friend and foe, even if it knows it cannot kill them.” She met his eyes, oddly luminous in the dim of the early morning. “I will always be grateful to you, so forgive me if I offend you, but I must know that you will take care with me. You cannot kill me, so I have no fear of that, but what you took me from was worse than death, and I will not go back to it.”
Nicolò’s face had remained blank and unreadable in her acquaintance with him, and she genuinely did not think that facial expressions meant much to his people, but now his eyebrows drew together in a semblance of a frown. It was possible, he conveyed to her, that he had some flaw in his nature to make him a poor friend; but this flaw was not a lack of caring, and he did not think that he had anything in him that would make him try and hurt a friend without cause. She had asked him to help her, and he had agreed, and so she would reach the land safely. He would not allow any other outcome.
She found the stern steadiness in this reply more reassuring than his earlier warmth, and so she gingerly stepped toward him and lay herself across his back, wrapping her arms around his chest and her legs around the place where his stomach met his tail. He was solid and slippery and cool to the touch against her skin.
He sent a questioning probe of concerned curiosity in her direction. “Yes,” she said. “I’m ready.”
Had this journey happened, say, fifty years ago, Quỳnh would probably have enjoyed it very much. Nicolò was a smooth, swift swimmer, and clinging to his back was about the closest Quỳnh would come to gliding along the surface of the water like a seagull or a dolphin. Under other circumstances, it would have been thrilling. As it was, water splashed salty and cold in her face, and every time she inhaled it she was overwhelmed with memories of what it had been like to lie trapped so far below the waves, flickering between death and miserable, frantic life like a weak candle. She closed her eyes, found that that was even worse, and then tilted her face toward the sky so she could ignore the water and focus on the moon, low on the dim horizon.
She didn’t know how long it had been, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour, because it was still dark when Nicolò drew close to a rocky cove. At first glance, it looked no different from the island, but no—on a rise above the beach, she could see cottages. One of the small coastal villages, then.
Land. Land inhabited by humans.
She scrambled from Nicolò’s back and waded to the shore, kneeling to kiss the ground. Had she ever loved the island of Great Britain so much? Had ever a little town with probably a dozen houses and one main road looked so beautiful in the distance? Never. If Reading and its court would stand in her memory as a place of suffering and sorrow, she would forever remember this place, wherever it was, as the first step of a journey that brought her back to Andromache.
When she lifted her face again, she let out a gusty sigh of air, taking a moment to savor how it felt in her lungs, and then turned to Nicolò, who was treading water and looking at her in his usual unreadable way. “Thank you,” she said, hoping her sincerity of feeling would compensate for her hopelessly inadequate words. “Thank you, my friend. I will always remember your kindness to me, and I will always wish you safety and happiness.”
He tilted his head to one side. Did she want him to leave? It sounded as if she were bidding him farewell.
“The sun will rise soon,” she said. “I would gladly have your company for longer, but I’m a stranger in these lands, and you’ll be even less welcome here than me. I’ve been shot with a gun and stabbed with a fishing spear before, and believe me, Nicolò, you don’t want that. Besides, I have many miles to travel over land, and I may not always be able to stick to the coast.”
Why would she need to stick to the coast?
She fixed him with a disbelieving eye. He had not struck her at any point in their acquaintance as a stupid creature, but she supposed it was possible that he genuinely didn’t understand how travel over land worked. And yet, the coils of green and blue emotion that pulsed under the surface of his mind as it touched hers were not confused—more excited, or entertained. “What is it?” she asked finally. “I have no time to play games with you.”
Making his dolphin-like clicking sound, he pulled closer to the beach and, using his arms to steady himself, hoisted his lower body onto the land. He flopped onto the rocky inlet like a fish washed ashore by some unseasonable tide.
Quỳnh stepped back toward him, baffled and a bit alarmed, her bafflement and alarm making her irritated. “What are you doing?” she hissed.
He flapped his tail in a way that Quỳnh thought meant, Wait a moment. And then, to her horror, his tail split in two, right down the middle.
She was not so undisciplined or unaware of her surroundings as to shout, but she dearly wanted to. Though he did not seem to be in pain, his body was…was twisting and changing before her eyes, the divided fin at the end of his bisected tail shortening, and his scales fading in color almost instantaneously, and the membranes that connected his fingers moving with a sickening kind of liquid mobility to gather on one side of his hand.
Into a thumb. As his fin had turned into feet. As her sea monster friend had turned into a pale, naked man lying on a Cornish beach on a cold autumn morning.
“How the fuck did you do that?” she demanded, too stunned for politeness.
He pushed himself up to his new feet with admirable speed, though he wobbled slightly once he was upright. There was a kind of smile in his eyes, which had not changed, and in Quỳnh’s mind, she saw an octopus moving from a light patch of sea floor to a dark one, its skin changing from an almost white gray to mottled blue and green. The people of the sea, Nicolò was telling her, could likewise change their skins to camouflage when they needed to.
“And you can breathe on land?” she asked, narrowing her eyes to try and spy where she had seen his gills earlier. A changed appearance would be of no use if he needed to be underwater to breathe.
How did she think she had made it from the shore to the cave on the island, if not for him pulling her to shelter? Who did she think had covered her with a sealskin if not he, who had killed the seal? He opened his mouth and took an exaggeratedly deep breath, puffing his chest out before hollowing it as he exhaled.
It was clear that he saw this all as a fantastic joke. But Quỳnh was not amused. She was tired of fear and solitude and having the rug pulled out from under her. She had resigned herself to traveling alone, and while she did not begrudge the pains she would need to take to protect him on the road—after the way he had rescued and fed her and carried her on his back, it would be wretchedly ungrateful to resent him for his lack of understanding of what it would take to blend in with humans—she would have liked to know that he was capable of this. She would have liked to know the whole of what she owed him, and she was angry with him for not telling her and with herself for not guessing. “You could have told me,” she said in a low voice. “There was no need for you to lie to me.”
His own amusement faded, and he regarded her with large eyes. He had not planned to deceive her. He had not thought she needed to know before they were friends, and once she’d asked him to carry her back to England, he thought it would be a pleasant revelation. If he would truly be a burden to her, though, he was willing to leave her be and return to the waters around the island. His thoughts had taken on a sickly lilac hue of hesitation, hurt, even perhaps an echo of her own loneliness. He would return to the water if she told him to, but it would not be because he wished to go.
Since when do you have a soft spot for cow eyes?, Andromache might have said if she were there. He’s a sea creature that eats humans—even if this were a good time to take in a pet, he wouldn’t be the one.
She sighed and dismissed her imaginings. Andromache knew as well as anyone the way that an hour or a day could change everything, make the impossible seem inevitable, and if she had truly been here, she would make the same decision that Quỳnh was about to make. Had she not told Nicolò only a minute ago that she would welcome his company? “We’ll need to find some clothes for you,” she said. “Men do not travel naked here. And for that matter, we’ll need to find some better clothes for me, too.”
The inside of Nicolò’s mind echoed the brightening eastern sky, growing flushed with pleasure.
It would have been far too much to expect drying laundry on clotheslines so early in the morning, and the village was too small to have a market for clothing, so Quỳnh stole a couple of sail cloths local fishermen had used to cover their fishing boats, sending a silent apology their way. She wrapped hers around her shoulders as a cloak, and Nicolò, who was taking apparently taking his cues about how to move around on land from her, imitated her motions. She rolled her eyes. The makeshift cloak was still open in the front, so unlike her, he had nothing covering the parts of him that the people of England would find most objectionable, which were indistinguishable from those of human men. He didn’t quite understand her criticism, but he stood agreeably enough as she rearranged the sailcloth to cover him more completely and repurposed rope from the fishermen’s boats to fashion a kind of belt.
It wasn’t much by way of clothing, but it would do until she could find something better.
Assuming she was where she believed she was, it was some two hundred miles to the meeting place at Portsmouth, so she would have at least a week to think up a convincing story and find clothing that wouldn’t make them stand out so much.
As they made their way out toward the main road that would take them out of the village and to the larger highway in the growing light, Quỳnh took account of her surroundings. She was not so familiar with these parts to know what might have changed in recent years, but the style of houses was not so different than it had been when she and Andromache had landed in 1610 in hopes of disrupting the witch trials. Perhaps she had not been under the water so long that Andromache had lost hope and left to see if she could help with the famine in Ethiopia, as they had been speaking of doing before the magistrates of Berkshire had separated them.
What must her love think? Surely she would know that Quỳnh would not give up, would not give into despair or ever stop fighting to get back to her. But what a blow it would be. They had never been so cruelly separated before, never cut off from one of their own so completely since Lykon’s death. It had been a kind of evil brilliance to use the force of the ocean to keep them apart, to find a fate more savage than death for Quỳnh.
You and me, until the end.
Mingled anger and grief choked her, and she cleared her throat, as if that could rid her of the tightness pressing against her heart.
Next to her, Nicolò gave her a curious look. He was fascinated by his surroundings, and did not understand where her sudden eruption of feeling had come from, but he was as always willing to extend reassurance in her direction like a warm, gently rocking tide.
She wiped her mind of anything but the road in front of her and her friend next to her. It was not time yet to indulge in emotion. Not until she and Nicolò were safe and solidly on their way back to Andromache and Yusuf.
They had not been walking for more than half an hour or so when they encountered a man driving a horse-drawn cart. Quỳnh considered hiding but decided that it would only be postponing the inevitable. “Hello!” she greeted.
The man looked at her, startled. She could see him taking in her filthy shift and sail-cloth cloak, and Nicolò’s messy approximation of a toga. His eyes widened, and Quỳnh silently told Nicolò not to try and say anything, either with his mind or with whatever collection of noises he was still capable of making in this new, more human form of his. The last thing that they needed was for this stranger to take into his head that they were some kind of devils or demons.
A dark red ripple of suspicious dislike radiated from him—humans, to him, meant danger—but Quỳnh supposed her command must have been effective, because after a moment the stranger said, with some hesitation, “Dydh da.”
Quỳnh had been right—they were in Cornwall. She wasn’t as skilled at Andromache at pulling languages she hadn’t spoken in fifty years out of her ass, but she remembered enough to say in Cornish, “Good morning. My husband and I have been set upon by robbers—can you help us?”
“Robbers, is it?” asked the man slowly. Quỳnh did not have Nicolò’s gift for reading a person’s feelings and thoughts, but she thought she knew what this man was thinking. He was wondering whether they had been set upon by robbers, or were robbers. From what Quỳnh remembered, smugglers and pirates were common along the coast here, and she and Nicolò were so obviously not locals.
After a moment, though, the stranger seemed to decide that they were what they said they were, because he sighed and said, “Heading to Newlyn. Want a ride?”
Their driver, whose name turned out to be John Nancarrow, was a rather taciturn dairy farmer heading to market. Quỳnh and Nicolò sat among cool barrels of butter in the wagon and were politely ignored by John. This was fine with Quỳnh; she used the time to try and impress upon Nicolò that he must do as she said in order to avoid suspicion and not do anything that would give away the fact that he was a sea person. Having recovered from his fear of John, Nicolò was clearly distracted by the smell of the butter and the movement of the horses drawing the cart—he wasn’t actually certain whether he had ever seen horses before, and he kept turning around to peer over the butter and look at them. But he was willing to follow Quỳnh’s lead, and he readily agreed not to bite anyone or let anyone see his claws and tail or try and speak his own language among humans who were not her.
Quỳnh, despite her nerves, began to relax a bit. To have a husband—even so odd a husband as Nicolò—would help her seem less suspicious, and offer at least a veil of respectability to keep away the wolves who always prowled around women traveling alone. And oh, how Andromache would laugh to hear about it.
By the time they reached Newlyn, the day had well and truly begun. Amusement forgotten, Quỳnh felt herself tense defensively again. The rush of people around them made a prickle of nerves dance at the back of her neck. She was surrounded now.
She thanked John and, after he was out of sight but before they could garner too many strange looks from passersby, she pickpocketed a prosperous-looking fishmonger. This, at least, she was still good at. Before he could realize she had stolen his purse, she asked the man where the nearest tailor was. His only answer was a disgusted order to get away from him, but a more sympathetic apprentice selling herrings at a small nearby stand directed her and Nicolò to his brother-in-law’s shop two streets over.
The brother-in-law clearly also thought that they were beggars of some kind, but the fishmonger’s money changed his mind quickly enough, and so Quỳnh spent the morning being fitted for an actual dress. Hugh Boscawen, the tailor, didn’t make the stiff bodies and farthingales that had been stylish when she and Andromache first came to England, but Quỳnh didn’t much care about being fashionable—the heavy woolen dresses Hugh sold ready-made in his shop in gray and red and blue were good enough for her. The red caught her eye, and it was only the work of half an hour for Hugh to hem it for her.
Nicolò was horrified by the prospect of the thick woolen breeches, linen shirt, and canvas doublet Hugh offered him, and even more horrified by the prospect of Hugh putting his hands on him to make sure the clothing fit. The feeling of cloth against his skin was strange and unpleasant to him. He stood still throughout all the hemming and measuring, though, and stared at Quỳnh with mournful eyes.
You were the one who wanted to come with me, she pointed out.
He ruefully thought that there seemed to be more to being human than he had planned for.
She studied him with a critical eye. The style here was for beards, and Nicolò appeared clean-shaven, perhaps because sea people simply didn’t grow beards. He stood in an awkward manner, as if unsure what to do with his arms, and with his sharp, inquisitive gaze, he might be thought rude. Still, the clothing fit him well, and he was tall and well-built. There was nothing terribly frightening or dangerously strange about his appearance. So long as she did all his speaking for him, she thought he would probably pass as a mute foreigner rather than an inhuman creature of the deep.
“Doesn’t talk much, your husband, does he?” asked Hugh, as if he had been listening in on her thoughts with a sea person’s knack for it. His tone was distinctly pitying, though, rather than suspicious. It was clear that he thought Nicolò was some kind of simpleton.
This was not truly a bad thing for him to think—it might actually be easier for them as they traveled if people believed Nicolò a fool—but it made Quỳnh bristle. She did not think that Hugh would do so well if he were compelled to live among sea people. “No, he doesn’t,” she said coolly. “But I often find that those who are willing to be quiet and listen are cleverer than those who can’t shut their mouths, don’t you?”
Hugh sent her a narrow-eyed look. “Where did you say you were from, again?”
She lifted her chin proudly. If there was one trick that worked more often than it didn’t, it was to act as if you belonged somewhere, or better, to act as if you belonged somewhere better than where you currently were. “Portsmouth,” she said, daring Hugh to disagree.
They left the cobbler’s store next to Hugh’s shop considerably poorer but entirely less conspicuous--Quỳnh’s looks and Nicolò’s befuddlement might garner a curious look here and there, but they looked close enough to normal to wrangle some mutton pies and beer out of a local innkeeper. It wasn’t even very good, but it also wasn’t mostly raw fish cooked over a seaweed fire, so Quỳnh devoured it eagerly. Nicolò was considerably more dubious, but it seemed that he could, at least, eat something other than fish or drowned sailors, which was good news to Quỳnh.
After they had finished eating, Quỳnh used the rest of the fishmonger’s money to hire a cart to Falmouth. Much as she would like to travel without rest until she and Andromache were together again, the trip would be smoother and with altogether fewer chances of being arrested if she stuck to her guise as respectable married woman.
Nicolò, being more or less literally a fish out of water, had little to say, save the occasional curious mental prodding about how roads were built or what a dog was. If his more human shape made him uncomfortable, he gave no signs of it, and despite his general distaste for humans, he had no particular hostility or hunger with regards to the ebbing and flowing tides of people around them. Altogether, Quỳnh thought she could have done much worse as far as false husbands went.
Evening found them in an inn with a view of Pendennis Castle and much tastier fare for supper than the tavern in Newlyn had provided. If the head of the garrison hadn’t wanted Quỳnh to pick his pockets, she reasoned, he wouldn’t have accused her of being a vagrant and only apologized when Quỳnh made a fuss and told him her husband wouldn’t stand for it. Stupid man.
She didn’t especially like having to pickpocket her way along the coast, though. With any luck she’d be able to hire a boat to Plymouth, or better yet all the way to Portsmouth, and she could shave some time off the trip.
After supper, she led Nicolò to the room she had let and explained to him the purpose of the bed and the washbasin in the corner and the shutters on the windows. He took it in gravely, and she got the distinct impression that while he was still curious about the human things around him, he was also tired and overwhelmed from so many new experiences in one day.
Having spent the day pulling out her Cornish and English and best respectable housewifely manners, after months or years or however long it had been in her own personal worst nightmare under the sea, she found she was a bit tired and overwhelmed herself.
They were both grateful to remove their shoes, and Quỳnh pulled back the bedcovers while Nicolò sat himself in the chair by the window, gazing out the window.
Quỳnh bounced once on the bed, which was very comfortable—well, what wouldn’t be comfortable after sleeping on the floor of a cave without any blankets?—and hopped up to see what Nicolò was looking at.
The street below was still busy with people coming in and out of the inn, but the crowds were starting to thin as the sun sank, the sounds of rowdy English and Cornish giving way to the creak of boats in the port. Pendennis Castle stood proud against the orange of the evening sky, and just visible beyond was the dark blue of the ocean, almost black in the fading light.
A shudder wracked Quỳnh. On second thought, perhaps she did not wish to hire a boat to Plymouth.
Nicolò’s eyes flicked toward her, and Quỳnh could feel as he turned his thoughts from the ocean to her. How had he done at posing as a human? he wondered with deliberate good cheer.
“Not so bad,” Quỳnh told him, banishing the cold shiver that thoughts of the water inspired in her. “I wish more people were so quiet. You can take your shoes and stockings off now,” she said as she noticed him rubbing one foot over the other in an absent-minded motion, as if his feet itched. “I’ll stop tormenting you with human things for the evening.”
It wasn’t exactly a torment, though he couldn’t claim to like the way that the clothing and shoes touched him all the time. He looked down at the shoes, and reached tentatively to pull them off.
“You have to undo the laces and pull at the heel.” Quỳnh demonstrated, and together they took their shoes off. Nicolò did not seem to have very good control of his fingers, especially the thumb, but he managed to pull on the laces enough to untie them.
Quỳnh tossed her own shoes to the side and wiggled her toes—she might not be as relieved as Nicolò to have them off, but after walking on the rocky sand of the beach, and in the pinched leather of new shoes not made to fit her, she felt she’d endured enough foot pain lately.
She cast a glance over to Nicolò, who had closed his eyes and leaned back in the chair. It occurred to her that she didn’t know if sea people slept. He would not know what a bed was, certainly, but she wasn’t sure if even the concept of sleep would be familiar to him.
From the chair, he heaved a sigh louder than any other noise he’d made all day. His people did sleep, he informed her. In the middle of pods, with wakeful sea people surrounding the sleepers so that no one would be caught unawares.
“Like a school of fish.”
More or less, he agreed.
She had never seen another sea person around Nicolò, though. If he had slept in such a pod while he was bringing her fish and flotsam, the rest of the pod had never surfaced near the island, or if they had, they had done so in such a way as not to bring attention to themselves. “Nicolò,” she asked, “does your…does your family know that you’ve come with me?” She ought to have asked before, but in her defense, she had only truly met him a day ago.
He opened his eyes again and tilted his head to look at her. No. They did not know.
There was something heavy and sad behind the thought, his churning emotions a deep indigo purple, scraping like stone against stone.
“I see.” She had clearly stumbled into something that troubled him. She oughtn’t ask anything further. Curiosity bubbled within her, though, tossing up question after question—had his family died? Had he washed up from his Mediterranean home in a storm? Was he running away from something?—but he didn’t owe her anything, any more than she owed him her life’s story.
He pushed himself away from the back of the chair and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and his chin on his hands in a surprisingly human posture. What did owing have to do with anything? he wondered. If she wanted to know, he would tell her.
The navigators of the sea—for that was what they called themselves—were fewer in number now than they had been in previous generations. The size of ships, the number of them, the guns on board, all of them meant danger to the waters where sea-navigators normally swam. Nicolò’s clan had not much cared for the naval wars between what Quỳnh guessed to be Venice and Genoa, which Nicolò had heard tales of as a boy, but the recent siege of the city had been the last straw for them. A group of angry sea-navigators in their number had decided to take a more proactive approach. Had their ancestors not sunk human ships in the past? Had they not been armed with teeth and claws and song that had served them faithfully without gunpowder or cannons? Were these waters not theirs? They would not even need to destroy the whole of Genoa’s fleet, they decided. A few ships sunk, a few crews drowned and eaten, and the humans would understand whose territory they trespassed upon.
Quỳnh raised an eyebrow but tried to keep her thoughts silent.
Not all the sea-navigators of the clan agreed to this plan. Nicolò’s family had been split, with some wishing to swim deep, deep down, where humans could not touch them, and some wishing to fight.
Nicolò had wished to fight.
He was not inexperienced or frightened of battle—in his mind he showed Quỳnh his youthful victories over seals, sharks, once even an orca. He had watched humans sink each other’s ships, and watched his own people salvage what they could from the wreckage, and he’d thought that sinking them with claws rather than cannons might be more difficult but was certainly more honorable. There was a certain kind of pride to the idea of defending their ancestral waters, and Nicolò had felt he knew what to expect.
He had been utterly wrong.
The ship they had clawed and bashed open had barely made it out of the harbor. From the looks of it in Nicolò’s memories, it had been a merchant vessel, but Quỳnh was uncertain whether sea-navigators knew the difference between these and warships unless a battle was going on. Its sailors had been baffled and terrified, which had spurred instinctive bloodlust among many of the sea-navigators but had given Nicolò pause. He knew these feelings, had perceived them from humans before, but their emotions felt more immediate and overwhelming now, perhaps because he had helped to cause this fear.
The harbor had already begun sending out lifeboats to rescue the survivors, but the sea-navigators were working quickly to drag them beneath the waves before they could summon men with weapons. Nicolò had swam to one, preparing to grab him—
And found himself looking into the eyes of the daydreaming sailor who had caught his attention before, on that perfect, sunny day, when Nicolò had found himself curious about what would happen if he were to swim closer to the human Nicolò, if the man would be frightened or would find the sea-navigator as fascinating as Nicolò found the human.
He could not bring himself to drown the man. Instead, he had pulled him farther down the shoreline, where the boats were less thickly crowded, and left him in the sand to vomit up salt water and catch his panting breath.
Nicolò had well and truly burned his bridges with both sides of his clan—or, as he put it with a wry curl of flickering, sharp-edged sparkles of thought, sea-navigators had no use for a tide that carried one in neither one direction nor another. Neither the fighters nor the deep-sea retreaters would harbor him. Devastated, grieving the loss of a clan that had been his world, and furious with his own indecision, he had left his home waters and swum, driftless, along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula and through the Maḍīq Jabal Ṭāriq, called the Pillars of Hercules, and north until he’d reached cold and unfamiliar seas, where the local sea-navigators were wary of him and the humans spoke in sounds he did not recognize.
His loneliness rolled dark blue and turbulent under the calm with which he tried to infuse the memories, and Quỳnh’s own heart ached in sympathy. Had she not lost her family all those years and centuries ago? The details of the loss had grown dim over the years—she remembered that their town had been attacked by an invading army, all the local militia’s training and weapons useless. But the town itself, and her father and brother’s face, and her mother’s low voice, all existed now more in memories she had created for herself through telling Andromache about them than in memories she could recall.
But she remembered keenly what it had felt like to wake up alone, to wonder why she had been spared, to know that her home would never be home again. She knew what it was like to feel the devastation of losing the place she belonged once again, when An Dương had died and the spiral ramparts of her city were given over to the King of Nanyue and the trappings of her life there, her crossbow and jade knife and fine clothing, were discarded one by one as she made her way alone into the desert. She had tasted grief and sorrow at Lykon’s death, and despair at separation from Andromache. She had fought battles she regretted, and found mercy as bitter as rage at times.
This strange young creature was different from her in countless ways, but she knew his heart, and his lonely desire for a place in the world, an ache that clung to one’s bones and darkened the sun in one’s eyes. She and her own were strange creatures in this world, too.
She stood from the bed to clutch his still-folded hands between her own. “You need never be alone again. I see now why you wished to come with me. You did right, you know? To spare the sailor. To save me. It wasn’t weakness, or indecision, it was kindness.”
He let air out slowly in a hissing breath, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with her.
“Think what you like,” she said. “But I speak the truth. The kind of person who goes to such lengths to save a stranger is the kind of person who will always have a home with me and Andromache and Yusuf. I was not lying when I told you that I will be your friend as long as you are on this earth.”
Nicolò blinked at her, looking weary, but with a bubbling undercurrent of…hope, Quỳnh supposed. And affection. And gratitude.
A question appeared in her mind, green and soft. “You…you want to know how to thank me?”
In words, he agreed solemnly. He wished to try and speak her language.
She couldn’t help but laugh. “Oh, they don’t speak my language here. Nothing close to my language. Better you learn to say it in English, at least until we find Andromache and get the hell out of here. In English, they say ‘Thank you.’”
He pulled a hand from hers and, to her shock, put it against her neck. Her hand wanted to reach up to shove him away, but first instincts could not always be obeyed, and in half a breath she understood what it was he wanted. “Thank you,” she repeated.
His eyes were focused on his hand and the vibrations in her throat, and he made a humming noise before saying, “Thank you.” Or, rather, it came out more as a breathy pair of vowels, like “Hey oo”—he seemed to realize that speech came from the voice but had not yet worked out the part that tongue and teeth played in the affair—but it was still a remarkable effort from one whose species did not speak in words.
“Very clever, aren’t you,” she said approvingly. “That will make it easier for us here.”
Would it be easier for her if he also learned to speak her language? His hand slid back down to his lap, and his eyes slid back up to hers with that same sharp focus.
“Give yourself time,” she said. “You’re learning a lot at once, and we seem to understand each other well enough now. But if you’d like…” Why shouldn’t he learn other tongues, now that she thought about it? After all, they’d hardly be in England longer than it took her to find her family, and heaven forbid that he found a home with them without knowing a word from any of their homelands, or even from the languages spoken around his own corner of the sea. “Cảm ơn,” she said. “If you’d like to say ‘thank you’ in my language.”
“’Cảm ơn,” he repeated. The consonants were still a problem, but Quỳnh had not heard anything so lovely in a long time.
The dying sun poured red light over the room, blue shadows moving in from the corners. Quỳnh was far from Andromache, her second self, the burning fire that had given her purpose over the last thousand years and more, and she had no idea how long it would take to find her and Yusuf again. But there was a roof over her head, and clothing on her back, and a friend to stand beside her, and Quỳnh thought that she would probably sleep better tonight than she had in ages.
“Do you want to share the bed?” she said. “I’m trusting you to be respectful about it.”
Over this last point, Nicolò passed without comment, and Quỳnh let it go just as silently, as she frankly wasn’t sure how sea-navigators treated sex, or relations between men and women. He did have two questions, though: the first was how to use the bed, and the second was how to ask how to use the bed.
“You could say, ‘What do I do?’” she offered.
He repeated carefully, “What do I do?” He was already sounding considerably more articulate, though it would be apparent to anyone they encountered that he was speaking an unfamiliar tongue.
“You lie down.” Quỳnh demonstrated, stretching out on the bed on the side nearest the wall. The mattress had been stuffed with wool, and the sheets felt clean enough, and the whole thing was so utterly luxurious compared to the ocean or the stone floor of the cavern that she let out an involuntary sigh.
Encouraged by her reaction, Nicolò gingerly lay down beside her. It felt odd, how still it was, he told her. But not bad.
Not bad, indeed. Quỳnh had slept alone so long, and Nicolò’s body was not like Andromache’s or Yusuf’s, cool and smooth and eerily still, but the solidity of him next to her was a comfort. She fell asleep content.
The morning found her well-rested but hesitant in the face of hiring a boat, and in the end she hired a carriage to take them to Fowey. It would add a day to the journey but would have the advantage of keeping at bay the nightmares of the water, which she remembered only glimpses of from the previous night but which made her hair stand on end to think on.
“It doesn’t bother you?” she asked Nicolò once the journey was underway. “To be on the land for so long?”
He studied her face for a long moment, then attempted what Quỳnh believed to be a smile. It was just a twitch of one corner of his mouth, but the accompanying mental wave of reassurance made his intentions clear. He would be fine, he promised her. Give him a good swim in a couple of days, and he would be as fit as ever. Land travel seemed odd and bumpy and slow to him, but it also brought with it a variety of new sights and sounds and smells which made the experience worth any discomfort.
“You remind me of Yusuf,” she said, thinking with amusement of her brother’s wonder at all the places she and Andromache had seen, and his amazed pleasure at the knowledge that he would live long enough to see them all himself. Nicolò would not live so long, though—the remembrance cast a sour note into the sweetness of her thoughts.
Tell me about them. Nicolò cocked his head curiously at her. He accompanied his mental prodding with a very inhuman-sounding noise like a seagull’s cry. Alongside his disgruntlement at being unable to properly speak in his human form, she felt him reminding her that she had only told him the barest of details about Yusuf and Andromache.
“Shh,” she said in a low voice. “You’ll make the coach driver wonder what’s going on.” She put a hand on his knee to soften the reproach, and asked, still quiet, “What do you want to know?”
Whatever you want to tell me.
She contemplated telling him to take what he wanted from her memories, but it struck her that he might take this for an effort to avoid actually talking with him about them, which it would be. Leaning back in the carriage, she twined her fingers together in her lap and said, “Yusuf comes from your part of the world, across the water from the places you showed me. You know where I mean?” She tried to picture the northern coast of Africa, to place it in relation to Còrsega and Sardegna and Genoa in a way that Nicolò would understand.
He nodded, and she grinned at him—he had learned quickly what that particular gesture meant.
“People like us, we live normal human lives until our first death. When Yusuf was around your age, some—some five hundred twelve-hands of tides ago, maybe more, he perished in a war, one of many that humans have fought in a place called Jerusalem, across your sea in another direction. We dreamed of it, when he died, and he dreamed of us. We used these dreams to find each other.”
What a curious thing, thought Nicolò. He understood what she meant by ‘dream,’ but in his experience, dreams were mostly about things he was afraid of or dull or strange things that made perfect sense in the dream but none at all when he was awake.
“That’s what most of our dreams are like, too,” she said, amused to think of what sea-navigators dreamed of. “But these dreams are different. We do not know why we have them, any more than we know why we live so long. I have only had them three times in my life. Once for Yusuf, once for Andromache, and once for Lykon.”
Who is Lykon?
“Lykon is dead,” said Quỳnh, more harshly than she had meant to.
Nicolò was silent for a moment, neither making any sound nor sending any thoughts or feelings in Quỳnh’s direction. Finally he asked her to tell him more about Yusuf.
She knew he was still curious about how one of their number had died, but she appreciated that he was willing to set the subject aside. “Yusuf is…he’s very clever. He reads quite a lot.” A thought occurred to her. “Do you know what reading is?” Foolishly, she made a book with her hands and mimed perusing it.
His mouth twitched again in another almost-smile. He knew what reading meant to his people, he thought; he did not know what reading meant to her people.
The idea of books for sea-navigators distracted her from what she had been saying. “Wait a moment. What does reading mean to your people?”
In her mind, she saw another sea-navigator in front of her, this one a woman with flowing dark hair and quite nice breasts—the knowledge that this was Nicolò’s sister could not change the beauty of the woman’s form. The sea-woman brought her hand in front of her and, with one finger, drew a shape in the water, complex and fluid. In this shape, she could see through Nicolò’s eyes a rainbow of meanings. The way the water moved spoke of a bygone day, long before he and his sister had been alive; the delicate stream of eddies displaced by her hand told him of an adventure his great-great grandmother had had; the light broken into glittering shafts recounted the poetic formulae that always opened this sort of story. But it was not only the movement of water and light. Whatever medium it was that carried their thoughts and sentiments to one another, it, too, was disturbed by the movement of her hand, and it was this that shaded in the details of the story his sister was telling him, the movement of light and tide on their ancestress’s body and the bravery of her heart and the size of the giant orca she had faced.
“Ohh,” she breathed, fascinated. “You can speak to me in your tongue so that I can understand at least some of it--do you think you would be able to teach me to read in your fashion?”
The almost-smile grew. Only if you teach me to speak and read in your fashion.
“Oh, Yusuf will love this. He will want to learn, as well. He loves beautiful things, you know, and learning about new places and things.”
A curious kind of hope radiated from Nicolò in pale violet and pink feelings like bubbles popping against the skin. He, too, was enjoying learning new things. Perhaps he and Yusuf would get along.
“Perhaps,” Quỳnh agreed. “I think he may be happy to have another companion who is not Andromache or me.”
Nicolò’s brow wrinkled, hinting at a frown. Why?
“It can be lonely to be the odd one out. Not that Andromache and I would not have welcomed him to our bed if he had wanted it, but he isn’t interested, and anyway she and I….” Looking at Nicolò’s deepening frown, which was taking on yellow-orange shades of confusion in the feelings he projected to her, she decided that she was telling this in a backwards fashion. “I should explain about Andromache and me. Andromache is….” She tried to think of the words. She was no poet, and she had never had to be—she left that sort of thing to Yusuf. But she needed some way to package her boundless feelings for Andromache, their history, in such a way that Nicolò might understand them. “Have you ever been lost in a storm, but then you saw a star, or better, the sun, and it led you to calm waters?”
He nodded. It was a very good feeling, he told her—safety, relief, joy, a happiness that made the world new in one’s eyes.
“Yes,” she said with a smile. “That is it exactly. Andromache and I, we made the world new in each other’s eyes. She is so old, Nicolò, even I am sometimes in awe of it. When we met, I was hundreds of years old, and practically a child compared to her. But I did not feel young. I felt as if there was no place on earth that I could make my home, no cause I could fight for that would last. I was doomed to be alone. But then she found me, and I saw in her eyes that she had also been alone, the way I had, but that we would never be alone again.”
In his throat, he made a low humming noise, and Quỳnh was familiar enough with his sounds to know, even without the touch of his mind, that he was expressing sympathy, warm and heavy and full of the echoes of his own loneliness. She reached and grasped his hand, squeezed, to show him without words that she understood what he was saying.
“She is my home. When there is nothing left in the world to love or believe in or trust, I love and believe in and trust her, and so I will until our time comes to an end. Do you understand?” She willed him to. Many humans did not understand the love that could thrive between two women, and she had no way of knowing how a sea-navigator saw such things, but she needed for him to know that there would be no Quỳnh without the love that had shaped her life and that, even if she needed occasionally to hide that love from the world, she would not be ashamed of it in front of him.
He stared into her eyes, his own ocean-blue and clear without giving away a hint of what he felt, and he squeezed her hand back. He understood the concept of swearing oaths of love and mating for life, he assured her. He knew now why she had insisted so on finding Andromache and Yusuf.
Clearing her throat, she dashed away a tear that had unaccountably sprung into her eye. All this sincerity and feeling made her feel naked and raw. “Such things exist among the sea-navigators, then?” she asked, hoping he did not press her on her change of subject. “Women mate with women, or men with men?”
Another quirk of his mouth, this one more uncomfortable than amused, if she was reading him correctly. It was not unheard of among his people—not common, but recognizable, occurring in the pods in his wave-league at least a few times per generation. More uncommon was…he thought once again of the human sailor whose name he had taken, and Quỳnh suddenly realized that she had misunderstood the hunger that lay under the memory of that perfect, sun-drenched day, the image of the handsome, daydreaming young man leaning against the ship rail.
Ah. That would indeed be difficult. Nicolò himself had not understood what he felt at the time he agreed to sink ships in Genoese harbors, or when he had pulled the human Nicolò to safety. Such a strange thing was desire, to transcend the bounds of understanding and possibility.
“It’s all right,” she told him. “You don’t have to tell me any more. I think we understand each other, don’t you?”
He nodded slowly and pursed his lips. He took in a shuddering breath, and then—“Yes.”
Delighted, she clapped her hands and smiled at him. “Oh, I didn’t tell you that one! Well done!” She reached over to pat him on the leg, which felt very much like a human leg, well-muscled and strong if a little cooler than humans usually were. “We’ll have you speaking a dozen human tongues in no time.”
At this, her mind exploded with sparkling little droplets of light and a feeling like a feather brushing against her from the inside—the sea-navigator equivalent of a laugh. Perhaps we start with one or two, he suggested.
“Always aim high, Nicolò! Why settle for the smaller prize when the bigger is in your grasp?” Despite the bumpy cart ride and her frustration with herself over her nerves and, always, the alien and disorienting feeling of being so far from Andromache without knowing when they would see each other next, Quỳnh felt as if some greater prize were in her grasp. Escaping from death had become routine; she had escaped from something worse, and come back richer in knowledge and friends. What was the point of being immortal, if not for days like this?
When they reached Fowey, Quỳnh was in high enough spirits to try and brave the ferry to Bowdinnick, though she soon regretted it; the motion of the waves rocking the deck beneath her feet and the shouting of seagulls brought to mind the last time she had ridden a boat, in an iron cage, with Andromache’s cries ringing in her ears and that shitbag clergyman’s prayers cutting through the noise. The sickening drop before she had hit the water…
Nicolò grasped her hand. He did not understand why the boat upset her so, and he would not ask, but he reminded her that so long as they traveled together, she never needed to fear drowning.
“I feel pathetic,” she said hoarsely. “It’s going to be tremendously inconvenient if I’m this bad every time we get on a boat.”
So next time we don’t take a boat. Nicolò gave her the mental equivalent of a shrug and suggested that next time, she just hop on his back again. He could swim the River Fowey easily.
“And wouldn’t that surprise the sailors around here?” Quỳnh muttered, but she did feel a bit better.
It was still a relief to settle in another inn for the night. Perhaps it hadn’t been worth the trouble to make it only a thousand feet closer to Portsmouth, but since they’d done it, Quỳnh was determined to make the best of it. The options for dining were not so plentiful in Bowdinnick as they had been in Fowey, but a tempting smell of gingerbread and pork pies wafted from the inn’s common room, and Quỳnh enjoyed a very satisfactory meal, made only the more enjoyable by watching the odd faces Nicolò made as he tried new foods.
“What do you think of the ale?” She shoved a tankard in his direction, and he sipped. He might be new at facial expressions, but his mouth curled into a definite scowl.
“Hmm,” he grumbled. His desire for salt water rather than the detested ale was downright pitiful, and Quỳnh decided to put him out of his misery and order him a cut of salt pork, which she thought he’d like better than the pie. Others’ money was easy to spend, and why should either of them not take pleasure in their food?
The innkeeper was busy doling out instructions to a couple of sullen but very pretty barmaids, and Quỳnh cooled her heels as she sipped her own ale. A haze of contentment from her full belly and the alcohol and the warmth of the tavern drifted over her like a blanket.
Into this contentment, the name “Richard Bromley” crashed like a stone into a glass window.
Suddenly alert, Quỳnh scanned the room to see who had spoken. The inn was not very crowded, so it did not take long for her to find the two men leaning against the far wall drinking beer and talking with the urgent, pleased voices of those who had exciting news to discuss.
She ignored the tendril of mental questioning from Nicolò and strode over to the men. Their curious frowns brought her up short, and she smoothed her face into polite housewifery. “Excuse me, sirs,” she said, “but I couldn’t help but overhear—are you speaking of Richard Bromley, the justice of the peace?”
“Justice of the peace, madam?” asked one man with a frown. “MP for Berkshire, he is.”
Apparently Bromley’s ambitions had paid off in however long Quỳnh had been under the sea. The motherfucker. “Yes, of course,” she said, smiling softly as if at her own foolishness. “Is there some news of him?”
“Some news, I should say!” The taller of the two men glowed with excitement. Unlike his friend, who had a bit of an accent, French or Provençal or the like, this one sounded like a local boy. “My brother-in-law up in Exeter says the High Sheriff of Devon’s discovered a whole mess of witches, and he’s called down Sir Bromley to investigate. It’s absolutely mad—a dozen witches, Paul says, bewitching children and making them fall ill, and eating babies, and turning all the milk sour and the eggs rotten.”
Some part of Quỳnh was grimly amused at the idea that turning eggs rotten was roughly the same level of wickedness as eating babies. But most of her was a mess of white-hot rage, like a blade on the anvil ready to be hammered into deadly sharpness. Somehow, using every trick she could remember to keep her breathing steady and her voice warm with gossipy interest, she said, “You don’t say! They’ll be holding trials, then?”
“In a matter of days,” agreed the excited man. “The wife and I are heading to Exeter to see it now.”
The frowning one fixed Quỳnh with a look and said, “Heard of Sir Richard Bromley, have you?”
He was suspicious of her, no doubt. But he was also unimportant, and Quỳnh would not see him at all after tonight, whereas Richard Bromley was like a sharp, piercing wound in her heart. “Who hasn’t heard of him?” she deflected. “Thank you, sirs, that’s news worth hearing, indeed.”
Barely conscious of the bustle of the tavern, she made her way back to the table, without salt pork but with a new objective urgent in her mind. “Change of plans,” she said shortly to Nicolò. “We head to Exeter as quickly as possible.”
The words scarcely meant anything at all to him—she knew him well enough to recognize what confusion felt and looked like coming from him—but he was perceptive enough to leave his ale and pie behind and follow her back to their room without question.
Once there, though, he watched with a frown as Quỳnh shoved the few possessions they’d accumulated into a bundle. When she did not immediately explain to him what Exeter was and why they were going there, he gathered his curiosity and unease into a single, thrusting mental question: why?
“I have to kill a man,” said Quỳnh.
Nicolò blinked. What man?
“The man who threw me into the ocean.”
In Quỳnh’s mind, she saw the odd sight of a tail slapping down harshly on the surface of the water, and she understood this to be a sign of shocked anger among sea-navigators. Again, the question came—what man?—but Nicolò was no longer confused about why she wanted him dead.
His unthinking anger on her behalf was enough of a comforting reminder of his friendship that a fraction of Quỳnh’s urgency calmed. She had never explained to him why she had been in the iron cage for him to find, and he had never pressed her, recognizing that the memory was the kind of wound that would pain even an immortal woman to relive. But Quỳnh could not run from her past and chase it down at the same time, and if she could not utter Richard Bromley’s name to the only ally she had at the moment, how would she face him over the edge of a blade?
She pressed her lips together, trying to calm her muddled thoughts and feelings enough to make herself understood to him. “Nicolò,” she asked, “do sea-navigators have such thing as gods?”
He didn’t understand what she meant, and she called to mind the golden turtle who had protected the great citadel she had served in and given his claw to form the Linh Quang Kim Trảo Thần Nỏ, the undefeatable crossbow; the earthy, boastful, warrior gods and goddesses from Andromache’s earliest memories who were appeased with sacrifices and guarded their people from enemies; the stern, all-powerful father worshiped by some of the new Christian sects, who blessed some of his children and condemned others based on the incomprehensible logic of providence. Such a complicated idea to convey, so many theological questions and subtleties that Quỳnh had increasingly lost patience for over the course of her life. It was hard to explain in words, but she hoped the largely wordless language of sea-navigators made the concept clear enough for Nicolò to grasp.
“Hmm,” he said, the sound more a human noise of consideration than the droning, resonant song he made in his natural form. “Yes. No.”
She smiled at him. “Oh?”
Images and feelings and colors swirled in her mind. The gist of it seemed to be that, although sea-navigators did not envision their gods in quite the same way, the idea of some larger force beyond their understanding was part of their everyday conception of the world. They swam in their god; their god made storms and tides and waves and calms; their god brought devastation and plenty and the cycle of time that governed their lives. Among them, there was a kind of saying that, so far as Quỳnh could tell, translated as roughly “The tide has decreed it; the moon has willed it so.” It was a standard response to events that could not be explained but must be accepted; in Quỳnh’s mind, it looked like soft silver moonlight and felt like a sucking, inexorable undertow.
“I believe I understand,” she said. “It would be very difficult to be an enemy of your god, wouldn’t it?”
He pondered this idea, and concluded that one could make an enemy of the sea or the moon or the winds, or the forces that moved these things, but it wouldn’t be very wise.
“No. But for some of the men of England, and of other lands as well, their god does have an enemy, called the devil. And they believe that this devil can come to them as a cat, or an ape, or it can enter dead bodies or be summoned into an object to talk to them.” Her lip curled, remembering the passages from King James’s Daemonologie that Yusuf had read to them. The whole thing had seemed quite silly in the abstract; facing the gallows or the fires or the sea, it had lost its humor.
“Some time ago,” she continued, and though it bothered her that she did not know how long, she found comfort in the fact that if Bromley was still alive, she couldn’t have been underwater more than a few decades, “word reached Andromache and Yusuf and me that people of England were being accused of making contracts with this devil, and were being killed because of it. They called them witches. We had heard of such things before, many times, but we were at loose ends and in high spirits and felt that we might do some good for these women. Andromache and I went to England to investigate, and we found that nobody was making pacts with any devil, it was all frightened and jealous neighbors accusing each other of harm because it brought them comfort to blame someone else for their problems.”
Where was Yusuf?
“Along the way to England, he found a town that had been badly damaged by fire, and he stayed behind to help the townspeople rebuild. We told him we would send word to him if we needed his help, but in truth, we didn’t think we would. Andromache and I had fought together side by side for so long, and we knew that even if we were taken prisoner, they could never truly kill us.” She swallowed her bile. “We believed we had nothing to fear.”
They had, though. They had a cause for fear they had never foreseen.
Picking up on her nausea and anger, Nicolò reached out to clasp her two hands between his, just the way she had when she had told him he would never be alone again. The man we are going to kill?
Comforted by his hands and his ready acceptance of her wish to kill Bromley, she said, “Richard Bromley was a justice of the peace. An educated man, they said. An expert in hunting witches. What he was truly expert in was stoking these ignorant people’s fear, and telling them that the hardships they faced were the fault of his devil.” Quỳnh could see him now, his neatly combed hair and beard, his cold eyes, his reasonable tone as he logicked his way through every defense his victims tried to make.
Did he think you were a witch?
His question brought Quỳnh back to the present, and she nodded. “We were caught, and dragged before him, and no matter how he tortured us, we confessed to nothing. Because neither we nor the other women he had locked up had anything to confess to. He had us killed many times. But we always came back, because that is what we do. There are such things as miracles in his faith, and he might have taken our return as a sign that we were favored by his god. But I suppose that would not have done his witch-finding reputation any good. So instead he took it as proof that we had allied ourselves with his god’s enemies. We were locked away from the sun while he thought of how to kill us for good, but still we kept our spirits up. We knew we would escape.” They had been so confident of it. It had always been true before.
She cleared her throat. “He thought perhaps that each of us was keeping the other alive, and I suppose that was true in a way, because when I realized that he was going to tear us apart—that he was going to lock me into an iron coffin alone and leave Andromache to starve to death chained in a filthy cage like an animal—I—I—”
It was the first time he had said her name aloud, and she blinked with a surprise that only heightened when she felt hot tears running down her cheeks. She pulled her hands from his and pulled him to her, clinging to him as if he were the only thing keeping her afloat on the turbulent waves. He hesitated only a moment before falling into the embrace, clutching her to him.
I will not let you fall.
Was it pain, or rage, or fear, or sadness that filled her? Perhaps it was all of them. But Nicolò had strong arms and a solid body and the ability to project safety and warmth and fierce affection directly from his soul to hers, and if sea-navigators did not typically hug, it seemed they could learn it easily enough.
It had been many years since Quỳnh had cried much—not since Lykon, but that was not a thought she could bear on top of everything else. She had forgotten what it was like, and it was more disgusting and exhausting than she remembered. Her head pounded and her nose was clogged. Still, she felt as if she had set down a heavy burden when she finally pulled her face from Nicolò’s chest.
“It would be better if we had Yusuf and Andromache here,” she said, “but the so-called witches of Exeter will probably not have that much time. He’ll torture a confession out of them and kill them if we’re not there to stop him.”
“What?” By this, his mental prodding indicated, he meant “What should we do?”
She thought. “A coach will be too slow. With fast horses, we can be there in two days, or a night and a day if we ride through the night. We’re travelling light anyway, it’s not as if we need much baggage. When we get there….” That was a puzzle. Quỳnh was skilled at making weapons from whatever she could find, but unless she was able to steal a gun or a bow or even a shepherd’s sling between Bowdinnick and Exeter, she would have to get close to Bromley to attack him without other casualties, and she didn’t quite know how she’d manage that yet. “When we get there, we’ll know more, and we can make a plan.”
Nicolò nodded decisively. His last attempts at battle had left him confused and shamed, but Quỳnh’s anger and the prospect of saving someone from torture and death had lit a fire in his heart, and he was prepared to follow her wherever she led.
What a novelty, thought Quỳnh. Usually when she mentored young warriors, she had Andromache by her side. And oh, wouldn’t Andromache be surprised when she found out who Quỳnh had recruited for this mission.
The innkeeper was baffled and vaguely suspicious at Quỳnh’s request to hire horses in lieu of spending the night in the room she’d reserved—these were not safe times to be about at night, he argued, and she had already paid for the room--but he had swift horses to spare. In the end they left, albeit not without a very firm promise that if either of the horses were injured by riding through the night, Quỳnh and Nicolò would pay for them in full, and they were to drop the horses off at the innkeeper’s brother’s farm in Shaugh Prior.
It was a great boon to have as her companion a creature who could see in the dark, and for all that Quỳnh had welcomed the return to human civilization, she welcomed the solitude of riding at night with Nicolò at her side. Bandits did not frighten her, and neither did wild animals, and she had always been able to get by without much sleep. They caught a few hours of rest on the edge of Dartmoor, before finishing the ride to Shaugh Prior and changing their horses.
The next day’s travel was far less relaxing. In part, this was because Quỳnh could feel the prospect of arriving in Exeter and facing Richard Bromley bubbling in her blood. More practically, it was because the daylight brought fellow travelers who were wary of Nicolò’s awkward, intense silence and Quỳnh’s foreignness and lack of decorum and the rumpled, dirty state of them both. It wouldn’t do, thought Quỳnh, it was making them too memorable. If—when they interrupted Bromley’s witch trials, all minds would immediately go to them if they weren’t more careful.
When they reached the outskirts of Exeter late that evening, Quỳnh took care to make a show of being proper and mannerly and exhausted by her travels and was directed by a wide-eyed teenaged dairy maid to the most expensive inn in the neighborhood. Choosing another arrogant, rude merchant to pickpocket, she found another full purse to slip into her saddlebag. Leading her horse by the reins with one hand, she drew Nicolò to her side with the other as would an affectionate newlywed. They walked arm-and-arm into the inn, hiring a room and a bath and stalls for their horses before said arrogant merchant even realized his purse was missing.
Quỳnh had been nervous about sitting in water, even in a tub, but the bath was heavenly. Immortality might make one’s muscles heal from the rigors of a day and a night of hard riding, but not in the satisfying way one could take real pleasure in. The heat of the water steamed the tightness out of Quỳnh’s back and legs and neck, and she lay her head back against the edge of the tub and sighed happily.
When she opened her eyes again, Nicolò, who had been sitting on the bed while Quỳnh bathed, was staring intensely at her with a kind of hunger in his eyes.
She knew him well enough by now to know that he had no sexual interest in her, any more than he had in any woman. “What is it?” she asked.
Wordlessly, he walked over and held out a hand to her. She took it and examined it, horror sending a chill through her despite the heat of the water. The skin of his knuckles was dry and peeling from his hand in thick flakes, and there was something misshapen about his thumb, as if it was remembering that he usually had only four fingers and was trying to efface itself. Looking up at his face, she could see what her hurry to reach Exeter had concealed from her before: all of him was drying out, his lips cracked and peeling, his hair hanging limply to his shoulders, the dark circles under his eyes pronounced and casting an air of gauntness over his face.
“You could have said something!” she cried, and she stood from the bath, uncaring about her nakedness. Nicolò didn’t have the dexterity to unbutton his own shirt, so Quỳnh did it for him and helped him out of his breeches so he could sit in the tub.
The change in him was instantaneous as soon as his body hit the water—not only in the sense that the lines of discomfort around his eyes eased and the harsh line of his mouth relaxed, but also in the sense that his legs merged together into a tail in a process that Quỳnh had to look away from, and lines like thin knife cuts opened along his sides and fluttered as he breathed. He made a rumbling noise of happiness that resonated with the eeriness and otherworldly quality of whales calling to each other across the deep. Sinking down into the water until his head, too, was submerged, he curled into himself as if he were trying to make sure as much of his body was covered by the water as possible. Which, in fact, he probably was trying to do.
Guilt and irritation and worry chased each other around in Quỳnh’s mind like dogs chasing their own tails. “Why didn’t you tell me you were so poorly?” she asked sharply. “I asked you, all the way back in Falmouth, if you were all right outside of the water. Did you lie to me?”
He poked his head up out of the water, his eyebrows drawing together. “What?” He was learning better how to convey feeling and meaning with tone, his voice sounding genuinely distressed, but Quỳnh was in no mood to congratulate him on his progress.
“How can you fight alongside me if you’re drying out like a dead leaf? How am I supposed to plan an attack when my backup won’t even tell me what he needs to be fit for battle?”
His tail flopped over the edge of the tub, dripping onto the inn’s floor, as he struggled to sit up straight. He was fine, he insisted. He only needed a quick dip, and only because they had been riding for so long, and he would be fine in battle. He made a face like a grimacing smile, and his teeth gleamed, long and sharp, perhaps as evidence for his argument.
Underneath his bravado, though, was the sinking fear that she would send him back to the water and fight Bromley alone. That once again, he would have failed in the face of the fighting, and he would be exiled from yet another home. Though she had accused him of dishonesty, he was not very good at lying. Quỳnh did not know whether this was in the nature of his people or simply in Nicolò’s nature, but the truth of what he felt rang in her bones, an instinctive cry against the thought of being alone again.
Her memory brought her back to that terrible moment, the one she had relived a thousand, a thousand of thousands, numberless times as she drowned: men grasping her arms and tearing her away, forcing her bodily into the cold, hard iron; Andromache, pulling at the chains so her wrists bled, screaming, screaming Quỳnh’s name; the realization that just as they had lost Lykon, Quỳnh would lose Andromache, Andromache would lose Quỳnh.
The echo of that heartbreak smothered the last of her anger like a blanket over cooling coals. She drew near to the bath so she could look her friend more closely in the eye. “Nicolò,” she said softly, “Trust me. Trust me as I have trusted you. I will not leave you alone. But how can I look after you if you will not let me? Don’t you know how it would hurt me if you came to harm?”
He stared at her as if this were quite a foreign concept, but she knew he understood—he would not have put his own well-being to the side as he had if he had not wholly cast his lot in with her, taken on her own goals and desires and vengeance as his own. He knew what it was to care for someone such that their suffering hurt him.
Slowly, he relaxed his mouth, his fang-like teeth hiding once more behind his lips. “What do I do?” he asked.
“You tell me when you are suffering,” she said, putting the full weight of sincerity behind her words. “When you need something, you ask me, and if I am being too stubborn to listen, you ask me again.”
The corner of his mouth curled up into a tentative smile, softer and less forced than his previous display of fangs. Alongside his fear, she felt his now-familiar fondness and amusement drift toward her in warm-colored wisps as he pondered this. Salt water? he asked hesitantly. He had been craving salt for days.
She smiled. “Of course. Let me put on my clothing again, and I will fetch you some salt water.”
That night, after they had dined--Quỳnh on some middling wine and decent beef stew, Nicolò on salt water and a raw fish Quỳnh had managed to wheedle from the inn’s cook—they lay twined together in the bed. It was more a matter of comfort than of warmth. Quỳnh felt shaken from her memories and from the shocking reminder that Nicolò, however inhuman, was mortal, and she felt that Nicolò needed the reassurance that she traveled with him not only out of necessity now but because he was dear to her. She missed Andromache, and he was unused to physical affection, but oh, how grateful she was to have him, and how grateful he was for her.
In the morning, Quỳnh rose with new purpose, new clarity. She had been thinking of this as a solo mission, but it was not, and Nicolò would need to be a part of whatever her next move was. Over bread and butter and beer in the tavern’s common room, she laid out in a mix of vague words and clearer thoughts how she thought they ought to proceed: gather information about the ‘witches’ and the arrival of Sir Bromley, devise some method by which they could isolate him and kill him, and then spread the rumor that it was he, and not the women under arrest, who had made the pact with the devil. Quỳnh hated to contribute to such malevolently foolish ideas, but simply breaking the women out of prison would do no good if they were still under suspicion of witchcraft, and she suspected that they would not be willing to travel with her and Nicolò outside of the country, far from family and home.
Nicolò nodded with steady thoughtfulness when she had explained her thoughts to him. He didn’t necessarily understand all the information he received from the people around him, he offered, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t getting information from them. Whatever shifts he had made to his body had obviously not changed his mind’s ability to perceive thoughts and feelings and memories from those around him, and if Quỳnh would only tell him what she was looking for, he could find it.
“Good,” said Quỳnh aloud. She could talk with him later about politely ignoring the thoughts he perceived from people—at this point, the idea that someone might be made uncomfortable by his reading their thoughts would take more explanation than Quỳnh felt capable of giving, and besides, they didn’t have so many weapons that they could afford to throw away one of their strongest.
The weather was cold and dreary that day, the sky iron-gray and a drizzling rain seeping into one’s clothing and leeching all warmth from the body the minute one stepped outside, but that was all right. Quỳnh and Nicolò’s work kept them indoor all day, moving from one tavern to the next and gathering gossip.
This was more akin to catching fish in a barrel than a treasure hunt; the city was buzzing with rumor. Someone had met one of the witches, and had known something was wrong with her by the way a stray cat followed her around; someone else swore that his sister’s cook had been cursed at market by another of the witches; a third had seen Sir Richard Bromley at the witch trials at Oxford, and had shaken the great man’s hand.
All this was enough to make Quỳnh grit her teeth and wish a rude awakening on the townspeople of Exeter. But that evening, it was Nicolò who passed on a smugly kept secret from an innkeeper on Martin’s Lane: Sir Richard Bromley’s manservant had sent word from Weymouth to make arrangements for a private set of rooms for man and manservant beginning four days hence and, if all went well, continuing through the trials.
“Well done!” said Quỳnh, gripping Nicolò’s arm. If only Andromache were here. How Andromache loved the prospect of facing an old enemy, the satisfaction of knowing that a man who had troubled them would trouble them no longer. She would particularly have enjoyed facing once more the man who had condemned them to, as he thought, a fate worse than death.
Some of this grim contentment must have passed to Nicolò; he frowned and asked, “We can?” Do you truly think we can kill this man without getting caught, if he is as famous and important as these people think he is?
Quỳnh could have told him that she and Andromache had brought down whole armies between them, never mind one aging English magistrate, but she shut her mouth and her mind on this response before it could be said. She and Andromache had said this very thing to Yusuf before meeting Bromley the first time, and look how that had turned out.
Instead, she turned the matter over in her mind. There were many things to be considered. Item: they must avoid being caught. Item: they must avoid casualties who were not Richard Bromley. Item: they must not spark another wave of hysteria against witches in Exeter. Item: they must consider that their only weapons at present were their bodies and a table knife that Quỳnh had stolen from the inn in Bowdinnick.
Ergo: Richard Bromley could not be killed in Exeter, where they would be surrounded by people and anti-witch feeling was high. And they would need something bigger than a table knife.
“There was something Lykon always used to say,” said Quỳnh slowly. “‘We may not have numbers on our side, but we have got time.’ It may be that you and I have time, too. We know that Sir Richard Bromley is heading here from Weymouth and will be here in four days; he does not know where we are or that we are looking for him. It would be quite shocking for an MP to be killed in Exeter right before advising at a witch trial, but it would not be so shocking for him to be killed by highwaymen on the road. Everyone knows that these are dangerous days to travel.”
We ride quickly again, then, Nicolò concluded.
“You are a fast learner,” Quỳnh agreed with a grin. “Only this time, you will have all the saltwater you like.”
They left the inn that night, though they did not in the end ride as quickly as they had to get to Exeter in the first place. If Quỳnh’s mental map of England was still correct, Bromley would be moving at a far more sedate pace than Quỳnh and Nicolò could manage at top speeds, and so speed was less essential than watchfulness. Their opportunity, if and when it came, would not come twice.
The road brought them near to the coast, close enough for Nicolò to shed his clothing and swim at night while Quỳnh walked a safe distance away and led the horses. She was of two minds, looking out at the moon shining over the water. The splashing and low roar of the surf scouring the land as the waves rolled in and out unsettled something deep in her stomach, awakened a gnawing fear that she had not had before coming to England. She could remember so well how it felt to have the weight of that water pressing upon her, filling her nose and mouth and ears and eyes. She had gotten out of the habit of constant death and revival, but she remembered precisely how it had felt, how it had never left her the space of a breath or a moment of untormented thought. How she had hated it, in a way she had not known she could hate.
And yet. She could see even in the dark how happy the water made Nicolò. An unaccountable urge struck her momentarily to drop the horses’ reins and wade in to pull him from choppy waves for his own protection, but of course he didn’t need it—to him, the water was freedom and life and home.
Are you all right?
Quỳnh blinked and kicked wet sand from her shoes. “Fine.”
A pale shape among the black water, Nicolò flipped onto his back, flopping absently with his tail as he looked in Quỳnh’s direction. It frightens you, the water? It might have been a foolish question—Nicolò knew very well what had happened to Quỳnh—but Quỳnh understood what he meant, that he would come back out of it and put on his human clothes and walk with her on the main road if the ocean made her too unhappy.
She sighed. She had never been one to need such nursemaiding. Not since Lykon had died, anyway, and Andy had had to wrestle food into her and answer her million pointless questions. But a person shed many skins over the course of a life as long as hers, and she supposed that she had better become accustomed to the skin she currently lived in. “It does frighten me,” she told him, “but more from what it has done in the past than what I fear it will do in the future, if you understand what I mean. The fear is a memory. The world will be my future, for nobody knows how many years and centuries, and so I must reconcile myself to the water sooner or later.”
Nicolò regarded her steadily. She could scarcely make out his features in the dark, but his eyes shone with a slightly unearthly glow. Or perhaps it was only reflected moonlight. You are very brave.
“Thank you,” she said. “You aren’t such a coward yourself.”
She had spoken lightly, so as not to awaken his old guilt, but his tone was indigo with gravity in her mind. I mean it. I know now what it would be like to be trapped on shore with no water, and even that would not be so bad as what you suffered. You are very brave to think of your future voyages now and look at your fear so squarely. You remind me of…
He moved his hand under the water and, though Quỳnh could only barely make out his movements, she could sense the same kind of brushing against her mind that she had gotten from Nicolò’s memory of sea-navigator writing. The motions were meaningless to her, and yet there was something…something weighty, and reverent, and sympathetic about the echo of them in her mind. “Oh,” she breathed. “What is it?”
“It is a…” said Nicolò out loud. “A…it sounds….” And then he sang, like nothing Quỳnh had ever heard before. Not the whale-song or dolphin chirps she associated with Nicolò in his natural form—no, this was something else, a pure, crystalline sound like wind over pipes or delicate chimes in the breeze. It was eerie and beautiful and hinted at some deep mystery, there to be discovered if only she listened more closely. It stood to reason, she thought, that there were legends about sea-navigator songs luring men to their deaths with their singing. It made perfect sense to her now.
“A song?” she offered.
“Yes!” he broke off to say. “Yes, a song!” It is another one about the great bravery of my great-great-grandmother, the mother of our pod. I do not think she would mind if I sang it about you.
Quỳnh could only bite her lip, her heart full. “I am honored.” And she was. If there was something to treasure about the Quỳnh she was now, of all the Quỳnhs she had been, it was that she had a friend so devoted who thought of her in the most meaningful terms of praise he knew.
The moonlight glittered a little less coldly that night.
As the sandy spit of Chesil Beach emerged and they made their way around the coast to Weymouth, however, they drew farther from the shore so that Quỳnh could hunt. She had purchased a matchlock rifle before leaving Exeter, nearly as long as she was tall, with all the charging and wadding and bullets she could carry, and she filled the time she did not spend looking for Richard Bromley by teaching Nicolò how it worked.
Nicolò looked at the rifle like Quỳnh looked at the ocean, with mingled fascination and fear. He knew what it was, but to the sea-navigators, guns spelled danger, and he had never imagined that he would fire one.
“I think you’ll do well at it,” she told him. “You have a steady hand and a good eye. The trick of it is to set up the weapon properly.” She beckoned him over to show him how to clean the pan with a finger, how to prime it with a bit of powder and charge it with a good deal more powder, and how to shove the ball and the wadding down far into the barrel.
What is the powder?
“Sulfur and carbon and saltpeter,” she told him. At his blank, impatient look, she laughed. “It explodes, but only a very little bit, only enough to force the ball out of the gun very quickly but not enough to make the gun explode.”
She made him go through the motions of loading the gun, and then stand and brace the rifle against his shoulder. “Don’t fire it,” she said. “The recoil is very harsh, and you won’t be ready for it. I only want you to see how aiming it works.”
He obediently braced the rifle against his shoulder and peered along the barrel. He narrowed his eyes, and…
A sharp jangling, a shocking bright light burst in Quỳnh’s mind. “Quỳnh,” said Nicolò, his voice tense. What does Richard Bromley look like?
It was probably a false alarm, she told herself, yet the trembling in her hands and the rapid beat of her heart didn’t believe her. “Where?” she asked. Nicolò carefully set the rifle down and pointed. Quỳnh strained her eyes to where the road emerged from a wooded copse some two hundred yards away. “I don’t see anything,” she said impatiently.
Nicolò said nothing. He didn’t have to. The words had been out of Quỳnh’s mouth only a minute when a riding party emerged from the trees. It was bigger than Quỳnh had expected—from what Nicolò had repeated of the innkeeper’s thoughts in Exeter, Quỳnh had surmised that Bromley was traveling only with a manservant or two, and probably also a coachman and groom. But there were easily a dozen armed soldiers riding in formation around the coach. Riding up alongside it was a young, well-dressed man with a great deal of soft curling hair and a supercilious expression, leaning in to talk to someone through the coach window. In the window, Quỳnh could only just make out…
“That’s him,” she said in a low voice, all the rage of the last however many years it had been seething in her like boiling steam. “That’s Bromley.”
Nicolò looked from her to the fast-approaching men. Who are all the other people?
“I don’t know. Fuck.” She squinted at the steadily approaching band. Bromley himself, of course—even from a distance she could see that his hair had gone gray and his face had been carved with the wrinkles of age, but she would know his face anywhere. It had been burned into her soul. Most of the party consisted of young men in rough uniforms, probably local militiamen. A couple of men in slightly less rough clothing were probably Bromley’s manservants. The real question was the young man with the curly hair. Clearly he was someone important, a local magistrate or even lord, perhaps someone with a courtesy appointment as a commander of the militiamen, but more than that Quỳnh had no way of knowing.
Damn it. This would be more complicated than Quỳnh had hoped. She should have known it wouldn’t be so easy as thrusting herself in Bromley’s path and shouting ‘Stand and deliver!’ Still, she’d hoped to have the satisfaction of looking him in the eye without all this mess.
“Into the woods,” she said to Nicolò, “we’ll follow them and see if we can’t split the party up.” Divide and conquer had served her and Andromache and Lykon well in the past. Nicolò nodded and bent to pick up the rifle.
It was at that moment when, as if Richard Bromley himself had been learning the language of the sea-navigators and had eavesdropped on Quỳnh’s wishes, his eyes met hers across the fifty yards or so that still separated them.
Cold as ever, thought Quỳnh, staring into the same steely gray gaze that had peered critically at her from a distance as the noose around her neck choked her and her feet kicked at the air above the gallows.
For his part, Bromley’s eyes widened with something very like fear, and Quỳnh thought his face took on a grayish cast. “You,” he mouthed silently as the carriage rolled ever closer, and then, aloud, “Hopkins! Hopkins! The Witch of Reading!”
The young man with the hair looked at Quỳnh, and she could see in a moment that this supercilious pup was cut from the same cloth as Bromley, and that if she did not move quickly, she and Nicolò would be captured and this whole wretched business would start over again. She shoved Nicolò aside as she grabbed the rifle from him, sending a quick mental command to him to stay down. The rifle was loaded, all she had to do was aim it.
But before she could, Hopkins pulled a pistol from his belt and shot her squarely between the eyes.
When she woke next, she was on the ground, and Nicolò was making an absolutely dreadful noise, a kind of metallic screech.
“Ugh,” she said, wincing. “Stop that, my head hurts.”
The noise cut off immediately. “Quỳnh!”
She opened her eyes to see Nicolò hovering before her. His face was streaked with blood, and his eyes were huge in his face. The inside of his head was such a jumble of colors and feelings and sounds, that Quỳnh couldn’t make heads or tails of it. When he reached out to her, she could see that his hands were in their thumbless, clawed state. And also covered in blood.
Letting him pull her to her feet, she took in the scene. Hopkins and Bromley were gone, as were most of the rest of the horsemen. One unlucky soul lay in the grass, his throat torn open so grotesquely that his head was nearly off. Another rifle lay next to him.
When the man shot you, all the others pulled their rifles out. Nicolò looked in the direction of the dead man, apparently having pulled himself together enough for coherence. That one shot you again. He gestured toward Quỳnh’s shoulder, and she looked down to see that, though the shoulder was whole, the dress was not, torn and absolutely soaked with blood.
“I see you took care of him for me,” said Quỳnh, not sure whether she felt proud or nauseated. She was no stranger to blood, but nor was she quite reconciled to the idea of tearing people apart and eating them, which she was now being reminded was something Nicolò’s people did whenever they could.
He turned to look at her. I didn’t eat him.
“I didn’t say you did,” Quỳnh returned.
He didn’t see me until it was too late. The horses startled. I would have killed more of them, but I had to run to the trees so they wouldn’t shoot me. He blinked, and though his face as cold and frozen as it had been in those first days Quỳnh had seen him swimming around the stony island, she could feel now that he was deeply upset. Fear and sadness and shame sucked at him like a whirling undertow. You were dead. Your head was broken apart.
He hadn’t known that she would come back, he meant.
“Oh, you.” She pulled the sleeve of her ruined dress over her hand and tried to wipe some of the blood off his face. It wasn’t like one more stain would make a difference at this point. “Haven’t I always come back before? That was how you and I met, remember?”
“But.” It was different, now. Before, she had been a curiosity to him. He had felt vaguely sorry for her, yes, but he would not have missed her if she had gone. Now, though, now the thought of her dying and not coming back filled him with a sense of fear and loss that didn’t seem as if it could fit within his skin.
Had they truly only known each other a week or so? But then, such strange times often made fast friends. Quỳnh felt overwhelmed with tenderness as she cleaned a spatter of blood off the mole near his mouth. “My friend,” she said, “if I were meant to die because of Richard Bromley or any of his pack of dogs, I don’t believe you and I would ever have met. What is it you told me? These things happen because of the decree of the tide and the will of the moon?” At his tentative nod, she continued, “Well, you can’t think that the moon would be so cruel as to bring you to me and then kill me, can you?”
A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, watery but genuine. “No.”
“Of course not,” said Quỳnh firmly. “I don’t give a shit what Richard Bromley thinks. You and I are exactly as we’re meant to be.” She sighed, some of her confidence ebbing away as she took stock of their situation. “Which is good. I think we’ll need all the help the moon and the tide can offer us.” Their horses were gone, doubtless run away when the shooting started. Quỳnh and Nicolò looked a mess, and with their saddlebags gone with the horses, they had nothing to change into. Their assets, then, consisted of the bloody clothes they were wearing, the rifle, and whatever they had in their pockets.
She sighed. Bromley and his entourage had doubtless gone to the nearest village, where there was simply no chance of two bloody, penniless strangers wandering into town without bringing the witch-finding MP himself down on them.
“Nicolò,” she said, “I believe I have an idea.”
It was dark by the time they reached the little seaside village. But that was quite all right, even better than daylight for their purposes. And they were definitely in the right place; even from woods on the outskirts of town, Quỳnh could hear the excitement going on in the village’s one small inn, and see, tied up outside, the more ordinary horses who had doubtless been displaced from its stables to make room for Hopkins and Bromley’s party. And, damn it, Quỳnh and Nicolò’s horses.
Well. Never mind, they’d get them back soon enough.
“Are you ready?” she asked Nicolò.
He nodded determinedly.
“And you’ll remember, if you’re in danger, you’re to run to the water as quick as you can and dive down deep.”
I don’t actually want to die. He fixed her with a wry look. You don’t have to keep telling me.
“You’ll have to forgive me—unlike me, you won’t come back from a musket ball to the head.”
He nodded again. “Quỳnh. I’ll go.”
“All right then.” She took a deep breath and patted him on the shoulder, letting the solidity of him ground her. This ended tonight. “Off you go.”
For all his initial awkwardness on land, Nicolò was skilled enough on his legs now to move quickly into the murky gloom of the dark woods, and before Quỳnh could even count to five, he was gone from her sight. For a moment, she was alone in the cold darkness of the autumn night, her only company the sound of the wind making an eerie clattering in the naked tree branches above her head.
And then, the sky shattered with a dreadful, metallic shriek.
Lights went on in the houses of the town, and the revelry at the inn paused. The silence lasted just long enough for the men to pick up their drinks again, when another shriek echoed through the trees, followed by a low, eerie moan.
Men poured out of the inn like bees from a hive, and Quỳnh could hear the murmur: ghosts—witches—devilry! They scanned the night sky in the direction the sounds had come from, but they were not prepared for the dreadful cackling that came from the opposite direction, which was followed by a clear, beautiful, spine-tingling note.
The villagers, clearly tipsy from celebrating the famous MP staying in their little town, had had enough, and with torches and the few muskets they had, little parties of fishermen and stable hands and carpenters strode with purpose in several directions. They were not bold enough to all the way into the woods, but they were certainly too far away from the inn to be taking any notice of what went on there. Nobody was left in it, anyway.
Nobody, except, Quỳnh imagined, the celebrity guest himself, who would hardly dirty his hands by carrying a musket himself.
Quietly, clinging to the shadows of buildings, she made her way to the inn. She paused at the window; as she had hoped, the innkeeper, too, had left the common room. After all, in a town like this the innkeeper was probably also the local constable, and so it was only right for him to lead one of the parties in search of whatever monster lurked in the woods. There would be no one there to catch the woman who lurked at the door.
Stepping inside, she stood at the threshold and listened.
It was a small inn—only three chambers upstairs, she guessed, maybe four if the rooms were small. Only one of them, however, seemed to be occupied at the moment. If you didn’t listen to the metallic screeching outside or the baby crying in the house across the way-- Quỳnh sent his mother a silent, mental apology—the only noise was the low conversation of male voices in the room directly above the hearth.
She tiptoed up the stairs and, walking so as not to set off any creaking boards, she put her ear to the door of the room.
“The other one hasn’t been seen since,” Richard Bromley was saying. “My theory at the time was that if you got rid of one witch, you got rid of both of them, but I may need to revisit the notion.”
“Don’t concern yourself overmuch, sir.” That was—Hopkins, perhaps? “We’ll catch her, and then you can test out all the theories you want.”
Quỳnh had heard enough. She flung open the door, and the look on Bromley’s face as she leveled her rifle at him was something she would treasure until the end of her days.
Hopkins, for that was indeed Bromley’s companion, reached for his pistol, but Quỳnh swung the rifle around to aim at him. “I’ll thank you not to shoot me again,” she said tartly. “We both know that I’ll come back, but it’s very annoying, and I may just have to take you down with me.”
“Begone,” said Hopkins, narrowing his eyes at her. “Even the devil himself wouldn’t dare touch Sir Richard Bromley.”
“Then the devil is a bit of a coward, isn’t he?” Quỳnh said. “And I think I’ve heard enough from you. My business is with your friend.”
Bromley raised his chin imperiously, and Quỳnh had the opportunity to study him up close for the first time since he’d had her thrown into the ocean. Her impressions of gray hair and wrinkles were confirmed—he’d been in perhaps his late thirties or early forties when he had condemned her and Andromache, and it looked like ten or twenty years had made themselves felt. If some men softened with age, she did not think that Richard Bromley had. The lines around his mouth made him seem harsher than ever, and the cold look in his eye was grimly familiar to her. “So you’ve returned, witch.”
“So I have.” She smiled. “I imagine you’re surprised to see me.”
“Not really. I suppose that word of the witches of Exeter has reached the bowels of hell itself, and you are here to protect your own.”
Quỳnh had to laugh at that. “Only you could make protecting innocent women seem like a crime.”
“A witch is hardly an innocent woman,” said Bromley coldly.
“I imagine you have say that to convince yourself that you’re a decent man, thought I don’t know what sort of decent man takes as much pleasure as you did watching me hang. Frankly, one has to wonder about a man who loves watching women dying so much.” Quỳnh mimed jerking a penis, and Hopkins scrambled to his feet, reddening.
“You filthy whore!” he shouted.
Quỳnh looked at Bromley. “Well, that’s rather rude. This is your protégé, is he? You teach him to speak this way to people?”
“Mr. Hopkins hardly needs my guidance in dealing with witches. He and I are of one mind on the matter—to suffer a witch to live is to invite the trickery of the devil.” His lip curled in a sneer.
“Well, if he wants me to suffer him to live, he’ll sit down and be quiet.”
“I’m a justice of the peace,” said Hopkins indignantly, “you can’t just—”
“George, please,” said Bromley, his voice showing a bit of strain for the first time. “I truly believe this wicked woman will not hesitate to harm you.”
Quỳnh nodded. “I’d listen to him, George. Not about anything else, mind, but certainly about how eager I am to shut you up.”
Clearly reluctant, Hopkins sat back down and shut his mouth. The glare he was giving Quỳnh would have boiled water, but Quỳnh didn’t care—let him glare as much as he liked. There was a lesson for this prim little disciple to learn, and Quỳnh hoped he was wise enough to heed it.
“‘Trickery of the devil.’ I see you’re still peddling that horseshit. Really, Dick, if your devil exists, I would think he would have better things to do than play tricks on you.”
“I suppose you would know that better than I.” Bromley arched a brow at her. “No human woman could have gotten out of that coffin without drowning. What is it you had to promise the devil to return from the dead? A cat’s liver? The blood of a child?”
“Cat’s liver this, child’s blood that, you know perfectly well the devil has nothing to do with this. Isn’t your whole religion based on someone coming back from the dead?”
Apparently not even the threat of death could make Hopkins restrain himself at this. “You keep the name of our Savior out of your mouth, you blasphemous—”
Quỳnh would have liked to hear how he would finish the sentence, and if he was capable of getting even more purple with rage than he already was, but before he could, Nicolò pushed his way through the door, flexing his claws, and Hopkins made a choked noise and went white as a sheet. It suited him no better than the purple had.
“Ah, hello, my friend,” said Quỳnh to Nicolò. “We were just talking about how I escaped from the ocean.”
Nicolò smiled, revealing his fangs, and Hopkins made a weak little whimpering sound.
“If you think the devil is rescuing women from drowning, then he can’t be all that bad, can he?” asked Quỳnh.
Bromley swallowed loudly. Quỳnh could see the gleam of sweat at his temples, and the hand resting on the pint of beer he’d been drinking was starting to shake, but to give him credit where it was due, he was keeping his composure rather well, all things considered. “Your familiar spirit, I suppose?”
“Suppose whatever you like. All I know is that a man tortured me, and tortured the woman I love, and then threw me in the ocean, and that a monster saved me. If I were to choose which was good and which was evil, I’d have to throw my lot in with the monster. All the evil I’ve seen comes from humans.”
“The devil has many fine things to say,” said Bromley tightly. “You’re trying to tempt me—to trick me.”
Of all the self-centered pricks. “Tempt you to what? And I’m hardly the one tricking anyone. You’d be a good deal more bearable if I thought you actually believed this nonsense about the devil and witches. But you don’t, we both know you don’t. You’ve built your career on this shit, but you don’t really believe the devil’s making eggs go bad and drinking babies’ blood. You just know that people are always looking for someone to blame, and so you turn their neighbors and maidservants into witches and devils. If anyone’s tempting anyone to evil, it’s you.”
“Spew whatever lies you like, witch.” There was a little color in Bromley’s face now, two patches of deep red on his grayish cheeks. “If you want to speak of what we both know, then surely you must acknowledge that everything about you and that—that thing that follows you around is unnatural.”
Nicolò, who had remained quiet throughout this exchange, turned to Quỳnh and asked, “What is ‘unnatural’?”
That probably would be a fairly difficult concept to grasp by thought and emotion alone. “Not how it’s supposed to be. That’s what unnatural means.” Turning back to Bromley, she let herself feel every ounce of rage she had ever held for him, and then channeled it into steady breaths and steady hands as she aimed the rifle. Nicolò’s distractions would only keep the townspeople occupied for so long. It was time to end this.
“And as I have told this thing, who is a better man than you could ever be, he and I are exactly as we are supposed to be. There is nothing unnatural about us. What is unnatural is the hatred you spread between families and neighbors, the way you twist your god to advance your own interests.” She paused and studied him. “Do you even understand what you did to me? Do you not feel the least remorse, condemning a fellow-creature to drown over and over and over again? Tearing me apart from the person I love best on this earth before her very eyes as she screams my name? Can you imagine what a torture that is—worse than any hell the devil could devise?”
“My conscience is clear,” said Bromley, his eyes seething as he stared straight at her.
And she could see that it was. Suddenly she was dreadfully tired of Bromley, of Hopkins, of the whole thing. “I would hope the years had taught you a little more kindness,” said Quỳnh, shaking her head. “May your god teach you better.” She pulled the trigger.
The shot echoed like thunder in the small room, and mingled with Hopkins’s scream. The recoil ached against Quỳnh’s shoulder, and she felt…hollowed out, perhaps, like the place where she had put her anger and resentment and fear was suddenly empty. “It’s over,” she said aloud.
“Is it?” Nicolò said, gesturing with his head to Hopkins, who was hyperventilating.
Quỳnh walked over to slap Hopkins in the face. “Hush! You’ll make yourself sick!”
He gasped and whimpered and looked over at where the remains of Richard Bromley sat, still upright in his chair. “You—you just killed the country’s greatest expert in witchcraft!”
“I killed a cruel man who was willing to make up lies about witchcraft to serve his own ends.” She reached out to grasp Hopkins’s chin between her fingers. “I do not know why my beloved left him alive, except perhaps to give him a chance to learn better what a weighty responsibility it is to hold life and death in your hands. He didn’t. He did not regret the suffering he caused even at the end. Learn from his fate, Mr. Hopkins. The devil causes far less trouble to humans than cruelty does.” She let him go, and he cringed back away from her, his earlier pride forgotten.
Nicolò looked from him back to Quỳnh. “What do we do?”
“We hope Mr. Hopkins will look into his heart and learn to treat his neighbor as himself, and….” She smiled, the emptiness in her gradually becoming airy lightness, as if she could take flight. It was autumn outside, but spring in her heart. “We find Andromache.”
For the first few days after Bromley’s death, Quỳnh was constantly checking over her shoulder to ensure that they were not being followed by angry villagers, but once it became clear they were not, she and Nicolò settled into a more relaxed pattern. Working their way along the coast, they stayed in inns when they felt inclined to, slept under the stars when they didn’t. Nicolò learned to say more words, in English and tiếng Việt and any other languages it suited Quỳnh to tell him about, and Quỳnh learned to wet her feet in the cold water of the Atlantic and enjoy the movement through the waves of a poem in the sea-navigator language, even if she could not understand all of it. It was as if an angry ghost had been exorcised from Quỳnh’s mind, and she began to feel herself reconciling with the ocean. It would be a long while before she wanted to swim or felt easy with her head submerged, but she knew that one day she would again. She had nothing if not time.
As they grew near to Portsmouth, Quỳnh felt her blood begin to quicken, but not with the hunger for vengeance that had driven her to Exeter and beyond, but rather with the rapidly rising joy that, whether at their designated meeting place in Portsmouth or beyond, her separation from her beloved second self would come to an end.
“If they are not there?” Nicolò asked her in their room at the inn in Fareham. He had not said much about their impending reunion with Andromache and Yusuf, but he did not have to—he radiated eagerness and hope whenever the subject came up.
“If they are not there,” said Quỳnh easily, “then we will leave a message with the innkeeper, or perhaps they will have left a message for us. We also have a meeting place outside of Le Havre, and I suspect if they aren’t in Portsmouth, they’re there. They wouldn’t have wanted to go too far, I haven’t been gone more than a few decades.”
“Hmm.” Nicolò sighed. “Long time.”
A long time to wait, he meant. And for him it was. But ten or twenty or thirty years was nothing to Quỳnh and Andromache. Andromache had pledged never to leave Quỳnh, and if Quỳnh believed in nothing else in this world, she believed in that certainty: Andromache was waiting for her, and looking for her, and would find her once again. “Have faith, Nicolò,” she said. “We are drawn together by something stronger than luck. If not fate, then love, which can be quite as formidable.”
That, Nicolò agreed with.
The morning rose clear and cold, with a fine layer of frost on the grass and a crystalline sharpness to the air and the outlines of the stars sinking toward the pinkish western horizon. Quỳnh had not stopped to ask anyone the date or the year since she had arrived on land, but she thought that they were drawing near to the winter solstice. Perhaps if she and Nicolò did not find Andromache and Yusuf in Portsmouth, she thought, she would take him south, back toward the waters of his birth. They were neither of them creatures of these cold climes, and they could do a loop of various immortal meeting spots before returning to England in the summer.
The bustle of Portsmouth when they reached it midmorning was just as Quỳnh remembered from the days she and Andromache had settled on it as a meeting place. A few of the buildings were different, and as they moved toward Southsea there was a grim little marker of some trouble in the past, a withered skeleton in a gibbet. But the inn where she and Andromache had agreed to meet still stood, its wooden sign still etched with an anchor and, apparently, the same stray cats still hanging around its front door begging for scraps.
Nicolò paused to sniff the cats and allow them to sniff him, but Quỳnh only let him linger a few moments before pulling him along. Their business today had waited long enough.
A thick-bodied, red-headed man stood behind the bar, and Quỳnh caught her breath, remembering the little carrot-haired boy who had been the innkeeper’s oldest son when she was last here. Somehow, the time that had passed under the ocean had not quite seemed real until now. “Hello,” she said, but it came out in a hoarse little croak, so she cleared her throat and said, “Good day, sir.”
The redhead looked up. “Good day, ma’am. What’s your pleasure?”
“I’m called Mrs. Quinn. I believe my friend Anne Smith might be here, or have left a message for me?”
“Anne Smith?” The man frowned. “Tall woman, dark hair, husband carries one of them big Danish axes around?”
The axe was neither Joe’s nor Danish, but Quỳnh smiled at the description. “That’ll be her.”
“Just missed her. She and her man came through yesterday, but heard word of the goings-on near Weymouth and left like a demon out of hell was chasing her, if you’ll pardon the expression.”
A thrill of mingled joy and agony sent a jolt through Quỳnh’s body. “Goings-on near Weymouth, you say?”
“Haven’t you heard? Sir Richard Bromley, the MP, was shot by a madwoman. There’s some says it was a witch, but who ever heard of a witch who shoots a man with a rifle?”
“Who indeed,” Quỳnh murmured, mind racing. Of course. Of course Andromache had heard, Quỳnh would have heard about it too if she’d been paying attention to anything other than forgetting about Bromley and getting back to Andromache. And of course Andromache had immediately known it was Quỳnh who had killed Bromley. “My thanks, sir,” she said to the innkeeper. “If she should come this way again, tell her I’ll return by the new year.”
The innkeeper readily agreed to this, but Quỳnh was already half out the door. Nicolò, who had picked up on Quỳnh’s urgency, asked her in which direction Andromache had gone.
“The way we just came from,” said Quỳnh. “They can’t have gotten so far in a day, but we’ll need to find the main road and ride as quickly as we can.”
The day passed in a blur, and Quỳnh suspected she was going to have to give the horse a good rubdown and Nicolò a full pint of saltwater at the end of this wild ride, but by all the gods and spirits and ancestors and whoever else was keeping track of these things, she wasn’t about to let this farcical bit of irony keep her and Andromache apart any longer.
It was on the road just past Southampton that her horse threw a shoe, and she was somewhat snapped out of her single-minded hurry enough to realize that both horses and Nicolò were ready for a bit of a break. Impatience didn’t suit a woman once she passed 2500 years old, Quỳnh told herself ruefully, and she helped a pitifully stiff Nicolò dismount so that they could walk their horses together.
I don’t mind the fast riding, really, Nicolò said, I like moving with the horse, but the wind in one’s eyes is very uncomfortable.
“Well, I don’t mind going more slowly for a bit, so we’ll get on fine,” said Quỳnh, finding some real cheer to keep her words honest in his mind. Nicolò was getting better about asking Quỳnh to pause so that he could water himself or have some aspect of human life in England explained to him, and Quỳnh liked to think she was getting a bit better at keeping an eye out for him. Perhaps the next step would be to keep a better eye out for herself; her growling stomach reminded her that she had not even stopped to pick up food in Portsmouth.
“Quỳnh.” She glanced over to see Nicolò pulling a paper-wrapped package from his belt pouch. He folded the paper aside, and—
“Where did you get salt herring?”
The smile he gave her was warm with just a hint of teasing. He was becoming a veritable virtuoso with expressions, considering how little he’d used them prior to the last few weeks. I bought it in Fareham this morning while you were speaking with the innkeeper there. I thought you would not think of food regardless of what news we got of Yusuf and Andromache.
She scoffed. “I might have.”
You might have, said Nicolò agreeably. But I suppose it is my role in this friendship to provide the fish.
“In that case,” Quỳnh announced, “it shall be mine to provide a place to sit. Over there, by that copse of trees—we’ll have a nice view of the River Test while we eat.”
They led the horses over to the trees. Quỳnh was somewhat disgruntled to find that they were not alone. Another party had already tied a trio of horses to a tree, and two people were sitting on a patch of grass facing the river. A man and—
Quỳnh’s heart stopped. She would know that silhouette anywhere. Under the ocean, in the darkest woods, through the most terrible of storms, Quỳnh knew the shape of her heart. “Andromache,” she tried to cry out, but it came out as a desperate sort of wail.
Slowly, the woman stood and turned to face Quỳnh. For a moment she looked like a statue, frozen in an expression of wild, disbelieving grief, and then the harshness melted away and tears were gleaming in her eyes and she was running to Quỳnh, embracing her, kissing her eyes and her nose and her mouth and Quỳnh was home, at long last she was home.
“Quỳnh,” Andromache was saying, and Quỳnh pricked her ears, longing to hear Andromache’s voice. “Quỳnh, fuck, I thought—I thought I’d lost you for good, I never thought I’d see you again.”
“Such little faith you have in me!” said Quỳnh, and she knew it was difficult to sound lighthearted when one was crying, but she hoped that Andromache understood what she meant. “You cannot think such a little thing as the Atlantic Ocean could keep me from you?”
Andromache nuzzled into her hair and kissed her neck, and Quỳnh shuddered and closed her eyes. “Yes, a very little thing. I’ve only been searching fifteen years.”
Fifteen years. So little a time, but it had felt like an eternity. She opened her eyes and pulled her face from Andromache’s so that she could look at her. “Your search is over,” she said. “And so is mine, and no one will ever separate us again.”
“Never,” said Andromache in a low, fierce voice, a vow as grave as any they had ever sworn to each other. Quỳnh studied the familiar, beloved lines of her face and swore an equally grave vow to herself that she would never again let Andromache’s eyes become so bloodshot, her face become so gaunt, her heart become so burdened that even now she looked as if it scarcely knew the burden had been lifted.
“Quỳnh,” a familiar voice said, and Quỳnh remembered that she had also not seen Yusuf, the apple of her eye and the brother of her heart, in fifteen years.
“What are you waiting for?” she asked. “Am I your maiden aunt, that you stand around staring respectfully?”
“My maiden aunt!” Suddenly he was upon her, wrapping both her and Andromache in his arms and kissing the top of her head. “I could kill you!” he said in a voice thick with tears. “We spend fifteen years searching for you in the ocean, and you interrupt our luncheon in some meadow in Hampshire? God, I was so frightened for you, don’t you ever worry me like that again.”
Quỳnh wrapped an arm around him and held him tightly against her. “Not to worry, I’ve already promised Andromache, so it cannot happen again. And besides, I sent Richard Bromley to meet his maker, so you might say I’ve made a head start on keeping up my end of the bargain.”
“They might replace him with some other bastard,” Andromache pointed out, still leaning up against Yusuf’s other side.
“Where could they find another bastard so big?” asked Quỳnh philosophically.
A mental picture of George Hopkins sprang into Quỳnh’s mind, and she turned to glance at where Nicolò was peering at the three of them with large, curious eyes. “Quite right,” she told him, “but we’ve given Mr. Hopkins a chance to reform himself.” She pulled herself from Yusuf’s arms to gesture toward Nicolò and said, “Andromache, Yusuf, may I present—well, he can tell you his proper name, I can’t pronounce it, but he’s asked me to call him Nicolò.”
Yusuf looked up, blinked once, and his mouth fell open a little. Apparently he had not even noticed Nicolò standing there. He gathered himself quickly and stepped forward to clasp Nicolò’s hand. “A pleasure to meet any friend of Quỳnh’s.”
Nicolò stared at where their hands were touching, and then looked up at Yusuf. “A pleasure to meet any friend of Quỳnh’s,” he repeated, seemingly too overwhelmed to do anything but imitate the words he heard. A clear, vibrating note rang in his mind, which was flushed with pale lavender and indigo emotions—a jumble of wonder and wanting that amounted to, Oh, this is Yusuf, I did not know he would be so lovely. Quỳnh stifled a smile.
“Nicolò rescued me,” she said. “I would never have gotten out from under the sea if not for him, and then to cement our friendship, he was good enough to give me a ride back to land and help me kill Bromley.”
Andromache’s gaze sharpened. “Now that’s a good friend indeed.” She stepped around Yusuf, who was still grasping Nicolò’s hand and looking as if he and Nicolò were much on the same page, and said, “If what Quỳnh says is true, then we owe you a debt we can never repay.”
“No debt,” said Nicolò. He was still looking at Yusuf as he said it. “Quỳnh is my friend.”
“So she said.” Andromache had doubtless picked up on Nicolò’s facility with speech, or rather, lack of facility, and she turned her attention back to Quỳnh. “How?” she asked, in mingled wonderment and skepticism. “I can’t tell you how many times we sailed out to the channel or the ocean and dove down to search for you with no luck. How did he happen upon you?”
Quỳnh did not bother restraining her grin any longer. Now was when she would give her family a true surprise. “Nicolò, why don’t you tell them, in your language?”
This finally startled Nicolò away from Yusuf, Quỳnh noted with growing amusement. You think it will be all right? he asked Quỳnh. They won’t mind?
“They’ll want to know,” she said, gentling her voice. “And I don’t keep secrets from them.”
Yusuf looked from Quỳnh to Nicolò. “What do you mean? What language does he speak?”
Instead of answering, Quỳnh gave Nicolò a mental nudge, and he told Yusuf and Andromache of her rescue the same way that he had told her: his vivid memories of her on the floor of the ocean, his curiosity and pity, the colors and feelings and noises that now made up his recollection of his friendship with Quỳnh. Hanging around bringing her fish like a cat bringing its master dead mice, talking to her for the first time, carrying her to shore and following her in human shape, letting her show him a world he had only ever glimpsed from afar and give him a purpose he had lacked since leaving his home.
As he told the story, Yusuf’s eyes grew wide while Andromache stared with an expression that told Quỳnh that she was thinking very hard about what she was seeing and hearing in her mind.
“My God,” Yusuf breathed when Nicolò had finished. “I don’t—you are—”
“His people are called sea-navigators,” Quỳnh said, grinning. His expression of dazed shock was everything she could have hoped for.
“And they are—fish-men? Sirens?” Yusuf shook his head. “I thought such creatures were myth.”
“I’ve seen them,” Andromache announced abruptly. “The ones I saw lured sailors to their deaths and ate them.”
At this, Yusuf frowned and looked back at Nicolò. “Surely….”
Quỳnh sighed. She’d known getting to this point would spoil the fun a bit, she’d just hoped Andromache wouldn’t be quite so quick to remember something she claimed not to have seen in the last two thousand years.
“I don’t,” said Nicolò firmly. “It…” It wouldn’t feel right, he finished in his own language. Not when I have lived among you as I have.
It was, objectively speaking, less than reassuring, but Quỳnh knew that it was the best Nicolò could do—neither his prior distaste for humans nor his longstanding fascination with them were likely to be taken as signs of benevolence. “From what I understand,” she added, “they don’t do much of that anymore anyway, because they can’t—ships with cannons have made it a great deal more difficult for them to find places to live, and many of them have gone deep under the ocean where they never see humans.”
Andromache quirked a wry grin at Quỳnh. “Well, that’s a great comfort to me.”
She shrugged, feeling oddly defiant. “Comfortable or not, he’s coming with us. He can’t go back home, and I’ve promised him a place with me.”
Shaking her head, Andromache let out a quiet laugh. “Back for only a handful of minutes, and already making our lives interesting again. All right, Quỳnh.” To Nicolò, she said, “Welcome. I take it Quỳnh has explained who we are and how we live?”
He nodded with a tentative smile. “I can travel and fight,” he said out loud. “I will eat what you eat. But…” Reaching back into his belt pouch, Nicolò drew out the forgotten salt herring. “I like these fish.” He held them out to Andromache like an offering.
The smile that spread across her face was pure amusement, and oh, how Quỳnh had missed it.
Yusuf laughed brightly, and took the herring from Nicolò. “Thank you,” he said. “We will share these, and you can share our luncheon. Have you had rabbit before?”
Yusuf’s face shone with delight as he led Nicolò over to the clearing where he and Andromache had been eating, doubtless explaining as he went what a rabbit was. Quỳnh stood where she was, inscribing the moment on her heart—Yusuf and Nicolò sitting peacefully down to eat, Andromache standing so close to Quỳnh that she would not even need to take a step to reach for her, the weak winter sun blessing all with thin light that shone on the surface of the river and gleamed in the grass.
Beside her, Andromache breathed in deeply. Amused, Quỳnh asked, “Are you smelling me?”
“Yes,” said Andromache without a hint of shame.
“I need a bath.”
“You don’t.” Andromache reached for Quỳnh’s hand and ran a thumb across her knuckles. She brought it to her face, clutching it to her cheek, then pressing it to her lips. “I’ve missed your smell. I’ve missed everything about you,” she murmured against Quỳnh’s skin.
Entertainment faded into contentment. She had not had the wherewithal to miss Andromache under the ocean, only to hurt and to want and to die, but the desire to return to her had been steadily growing within Quỳnh since then, a glowing coal stoked into a fire. “You don’t know how I’ve missed you.” Hot tears pricked once again at her eyes. She didn’t think she’d ever gone between laughter and tears so much in one day before in her life. “It was so much worse than I feared, Andromache.”
Andromache’s mouth turned downward, and she reached a hand up to stroke Quỳnh’s cheek. Her hand was rough, and warm, and Quỳnh had felt it a thousand times, a million, but never had it been so welcome as it was now. “I’m sorry.”
“I promised I would never leave you, and I let you down.”
“Bullshit.” The noise Quỳnh made sounded very rude to her own ears, but hearing Andromache talk like this was far worse. “I never dreamed Bromley would think of such a thing, either. All our years together, and some prim English politician is the one who devises a fate worse than death for us? How could either of us have seen it coming?”
“True enough. At least you made him pay for it,” said Andromache with grim satisfaction.
“I was surprised you didn’t,” said Quỳnh. She was careful to keep her tone light, less Andromache fall into maudlin self-reproach again.
She shrugged minutely. “Wasn’t a priority.” Her gray eyes stared into Quỳnh’s, their mingled love and pain and yearning desire plucking an echoing chord in Quỳnh’s heart. “He couldn’t help me find you. So I didn’t give a fuck about him.”
“Oh, my dear.” Quỳnh drew Andromache into another embrace, and reveled in the solidness of her love’s body, the warmth of her skin, the feel of her breath in Quỳnh’s hair. They needed no words then, not even of the sea-navigator mental variety—their bodies knew each other well enough to say what needed to be said.
Finally, Andromache pulled away and cleared her throat. “No doubt there’ll be men looking for the woman who killed Richard Bromley,” she said. “We ought to head back to the continent.”
“We should,” Quỳnh agreed. “But perhaps we can take a bit more time with it. I’ve had my fill of running back and forth the south of England for a while.”
Andromache huffed out a humorless laugh. “Fair enough. Once we leave, it’ll be a long while before I have any desire to come back here.” She grasped Quỳnh’s hand. “We’d better go join Yusuf and your friend there, before they eat all the food.”
Over the next week, they headed back to Portsmouth in a leisurely fashion and caught a ship to Le Havre from there, with the intention of slowly working their way back south and east to see if the services of three immortals and a sea-navigator might be of use elsewhere. Andromache and Quỳnh had no objection to getting as far away from England as they could manage without having to sail an ocean.
The days passed into weeks, and then into months, and Quỳnh wondered at her own happiness. She did not think she had taken her family for granted before, but now every meal spent listening to Andromache critique the pastries and Yusuf talk about books he had read and Nicolò tell stories of his people in mixed English, tiếng Việt, and sea-navigator felt like a treasure beyond compare. Every night spent pressed against Andromache’s body, every touch, every kiss, every orgasm, was something Quỳnh wanted to inscribe on her heart to be pulled out and remembered. Something that had broken in Quỳnh during her years under the water, some fundamental enjoyment of life, was finally healing.
It was not wholly surprising to her, the shy and gentle little courtship dance that Yusuf and Nicolò were engaging in, though she did take great delight in it. Both wore their hearts on their sleeves in different ways, and though they had yet to admit their feelings to each other, they were as plain as day to Quỳnh. There was something quite charming about Yusuf’s encouraging lessons in Arabic and Zeneize, which he offered in exchange for Nicolò’s lessons in sea-navigator poetry and so that Nicolò would know the languages of his own home waters and Yusuf’s. Nicolò returned to his old ways of courting a new friend via gifts, and he grew quickly more talented at hunting on land for both game and flowers to bring Yusuf. Yusuf was solicitous of Nicolò’s need for water at least every few days, and Nicolò solicitous of Yusuf’s desire for comfortable beds and warm places to sit and chat and sip wine in the evenings.
“You were right, you know,” Quỳnh told Nicolò one morning in the spring in Montpellier. The city was still rebuilding and expanding after the siege by Louis XIII, so there was plenty of honest work to be done, and the weather near the coast of the Mediterranean was pleasant in May, as Yusuf’s troubadours had written about back when courtly love songs were all the rage.
I am right sometimes, you know, said Nicolò placidly. He was eating olives out of a clay jar Yusuf had brought him, ostensibly to work on his manual dexterity but mostly because he liked them. “What was I right about?” he asked out loud.
“You thought you and Yusuf would get along, and so you do.”
Nicolò looked up at her from where he sat leaning against a tree, and his face took on the faintest hint of pink. “I think we do.”
Quỳnh thought of teasing him, asking what he was waiting for when both he and Yusuf were both so clearly enamored of each other, but then again, this would hardly be a small thing for either of them. They were different species, and had had such vastly different experiences of life, and Yusuf would doubtless outlive Nicolò by hundreds or thousands of years. It was no joke. “I’m happy for you,” she said instead. “It is a wonderful thing, to find love.”
He nodded, and she could feel him turning the idea over in his mind. You told me once Andromache was like shelter from a storm, when you met her. To me Yusuf is like that, but also like the storm. I am all turned upside down, and filled with feelings, and I search his face for signs like he is the sky and his smile will tell me if the weather will be fair or foul. But I like feeling this way.
“As I said,” murmured Quỳnh. “A wonderful thing.”
Yusuf clearly agreed—for the first time since his rather tragic courtship of a Dutch Calvinist back in the 1570s, he was writing flowery poetry and whistling old love songs from his first lifetime. Nicolò was as mesmerized by these as Yusuf was by sea-navigator song, and it warmed Quỳnh’s heart to see both of them so happy.
The only one who was not so pleased about the development was Andromache. She didn’t say anything, but she was short with both Nicolò and Yusuf, and had become rather prone to glum moods where she leaned against Quỳnh and silently drank ale and gazed into the fire all evening.
Quỳnh had never been accused of being a patient woman, and after a week or so of this moodiness, she sent Yusuf and Nicolò off to inquire about hiring a ship for Còrsega, where they would be able to practice their Zeneize. When she and Andromache were alone in the inn, she asked, “What’s deviling you? And why are you taking it out on our young men?”
“’Young men’” asked Andromache with a raised eyebrow. “One is over five hundred years old, and one isn’t even a man at all.”
Quỳnh narrowed her eyes. “I think it depends on your definition of ‘man,’ but that’s beside the point. You didn’t answer my question—neither of them.” When Andromache remained silent, some storm cloud moving behind her eyes, Quỳnh tried another tactic and reached out to cup Andromache’s cheek. “What is it, love?” she asked more softly. “Is it their flirting that’s bothering you?”
“It isn’t bothering me,” Andromache said. She was a dreadful liar. “I simply think it’s a bad idea.”
“Oh?” Quỳnh hoped that her tone conveyed that Andromache should, if at all possible, avoid being a horse’s ass when answering this question.
“Nicolò’s a pleasant enough creature. But the truth of the matter is that he’s from a species whose sex lives involve enchanting people with their songs and eating them, if legends are to be believed, and you know Yusuf. I would hate to see him get his heart broken.”
The accusation was honestly too strange to even be angered by. “Since when do you listen to legends? As far as I can tell, the singing and the eating people have nothing to do with the sea-navigators’ sex lives.”
Andromache shrugged minutely. “Still.”
“Still what?” asked Quỳnh, baffled and annoyed. “It’s not even sex that we’re speaking of. If they wanted to, I’m sure Nicolò could—make it work, you know, just as he manages breathing and walking. But we’re talking now about love poems and bringing each other gifts. I think it’s charming.”
“Now it is,” said Andromache. “And what about when Nicolò tires of living on the land and wants to go back to his own people? It won’t be so charming then. You and I will be stuck with another round of Yusuf’s lovesick misery. Surely you’re not looking forward to a repeat of the Cornelis disaster.”
“Cornelis was a pretentious prick,” dismissed Quỳnh, her annoyance growing. “Nicolò is my friend, and I don’t think he’ll be leaving us anytime soon. And so what if he does? If something is temporary, that doesn’t make it worthless. Yusuf is not a fool or a child, and he can endure heartbreaks as well as you and I can.”
“And you can tell me that you won’t be heartbroken if Nicolò goes back to the sea? Or when he dies, as he will, because whatever else the people of the sea are, they aren’t fucking immortal.”
Ah. Now, Quỳnh thought they were coming to the heart of it. “It saddens you to know that he will die.”
“It doesn’t sadden me,” said Andromache impatiently. “It’s a fact of the world. It saddens me that when he dies, it’s going to throw us off balance. We’re thousands of years old, and he’s only thirty, but if he dies in twenty or thirty years, we’ll still be looking for him whenever we do a job, for who the hell knows how long. We’ll look at an empty chair at a table and think, ‘Oh, that’s Nicolò’s chair,’ or ‘Oh, that’s Lykon’s spot by the fire,’ or ‘Oh, that’s the tavern Quỳnh used to like, I should show her….” Her breathing had increased in speed, her face becoming flushed.
Alarmed, Quỳnh drew her down to sit on a chair, and guided her head down to Quỳnh’s shoulder. “Oh,” she said. “Oh, beloved, I think I have misunderstood you. I did not think how it must have been for you when I was gone.”
“Why should you?” asked Andromache, her voice hoarse. “You were the one who was really suffering under the ocean. Yusuf and I had each other.”
“The ocean was worse than any hell I have ever heard of,” said Quỳnh, “but you were also suffering.”
“I thought I failed you, Quỳnh.” Quỳnh looked down at her, her hair falling in a dark curtain over Andromache’s face, and Andromache turned her face to look up at her, her eyes startlingly vulnerable. “I could not imagine the world without you, not again, but you were gone, because I couldn’t protect you.”
“Since when have I needed you to protect me?” asked Quỳnh, but she could not muster either indignation or teasing, and it came out tender and soft as the feathers of a bird’s wing.
Andromache continued as if Quỳnh had not spoken. “I lost you, like I lost Lykon, and oh, gods, if Yusuf were to die, or, or be captured—”
“Shh, shh,” hushed Quỳnh, as Andromache let out a shaky breath and asked, “How could I walk this world alone again after knowing you?”
They stayed together like that for a long time, simply clinging to each other. There was no more need to talk of anything; Quỳnh understood now what it was that Andromache feared. But likewise Andromache understood that love was worth loss, and had always been worth it.
It was late afternoon and they were wrapped together in the bed, not fucking but simply being together, when Yusuf and Nicolò came back with armfuls of parcels. “Oh,” said Yusuf, pausing on the threshold of the room they were sharing. “I’m sorry to interrupt.”
“Bah,” said Andromache, sitting up. “I’m getting hungry, anyway. I don’t suppose you bought any food while you were out?”
Things grew more peaceful after that, the storms that had raged inside Andromache calming just as Quỳnh’s had. Each age brought new wisdom, Quỳnh reflected. It was funny—one might think that life would lose its savor after so many years on the planet, that everything would become old. Perhaps for some it would. For Quỳnh, though, the change in the world without always revealed new layers of the world within. Quỳnh, Andromache, Yusuf, Nicolò, they all had things yet to learn about themselves and each other. As they readied themselves to leave Montpellier, Quỳnh felt excitement rise in her, the familiar excitement of a new journey ahead.
The day before their ship was due to leave, Yusuf had dragged Nicolò off to the Jardin des Plantes, and Quỳnh was testing her new-found peace with the water by walking the five or six miles to the coast with Andromache and stroll the fish markets along the thin strip of land connecting the city to the slender curve of Palavas-les-Flots beyond.
It was the kind of day to make one feel the stirrings of youthful love and spirit, with the sky cloudless and blue, the breeze warm and salt-scented, and the sound of waves and children playing and fishmongers hawking their wares ringing in the air. And yet, Quỳnh felt a faint unease under her skin, just a prickle of discontent beneath the pleasure of walking next to the woman she loved best in the world.
“It’s a shame Nicolò’s not here,” observed Andromache, looking at a man selling large fresh tuna off a small cart. “The smell alone would probably put him in heaven.”
“Indeed,” Quỳnh said absently.
“The innkeeper says the weather is likely to be fine for our voyage tomorrow. I suspect he’d know, he says his brother is a fisherman.”
“I suspect so.”
“Hey.” Andromache squeezed Quỳnh’s arm, and she turned to look at her. “What’s the matter? You’ve been distracted for a while now.”
“I don’t know,” Quỳnh admitted. “I can’t think of a reason for it, I’m just…something feels wrong.”
Andromache glanced out to the water. “Perhaps it was a bad idea to come out here today. We might have stayed around the inn and bought a pastry from that fellow who makes the animals out of sugar.”
Quỳnh mustered a smile at that. “You’re quite fond of him, aren’t you?”
“More artists ought to make works you can eat,” said Andromache firmly. In a lower voice, she added, “We still could go back, and perhaps have a bit of afternoon fun before Yusuf and Nicolò come back from the garden….”
“Oh, you,” said Quỳnh, amused out of her funk. “I’m fine, really.”
“You don’t have to be,” said Andromache. “The ocean is a cruel enemy, and you’re about to embark on another ship voyage. Don’t think that you can’t tell me if you’re worried, or you need something of me.”
Quỳnh thought about it. “It isn’t that, I don’t think.” She looked into Andromache’s concerned face, and laughed. “Oh, all right, don’t aim those eyes at me. We can go back and get you a bird made out of sugar.”
They turned and walked back in the direction of the city, passing shrimp stands and tuna stands and salmon stands as they went. They were nearly back to the main part of the city, passing through a quieter group of docks where only a few lonely fishing boats sat tied to their piers, when something caught her eye.
Not something, someone—a short, dark-haired man with thick eyebrows and a grim resting expression, sitting on the dock and fiddling with a net. There was something familiar about him. Quỳnh hadn’t been in the south of France for decades. Perhaps he was someone’s son or grandson, that happened often enough. Still, it niggled at her.
He looked up at her, and the startled recognition in his eyes told her that she had not been mistaken, she did know this man. It was on the tip of her mind, just at the edge of her memory, where she had seen him….
“Witch!” he shouted at the top of lungs. “Witch! That’s the witch who killed the lord in England!”
Oh, fuck, that was where she had seen him, that fucking inn in Bowdinnick. She turned to Andromache, only to feel a bullet tear through her shoulder.
“Shit.” She gritted her teeth and ducked down behind a barrel of herring on the dock near her. Andromache ducked down, too.
“Friend of yours?” she asked, eyebrow raised.
“He passed along some gossip in England.”
“And a heavy price he’s asking for it, too. Never seen a fisherman with a gun, must be a paranoid bastard.”
Another pistol ball dug with a thunk into the dock next to them, as if to confirm Andromache’s assessment.
“I cannot believe this,” Quỳnh complained, pulling a bit of dress fabric out of the rapidly closing bullet wound in her shoulder. “I travel all the way to another coast in another country, and I find this idiot?”
Andromache lifted her head briefly to look over the fish barrel. “We’d better go while he’s fixing his gun,” she said. “He’ll be drawing far too much attention to us if we stay.”
Keeping low, the two of them ran for the place where the Lez and Mosson rivers split, where sailmakers and netmakers and rope-sellers set up shop in hopes of losing the witch-mad fisherman. Andromache gestured with her head toward the door of a cooper’s shop, a silent question in her eyes, but Quỳnh shook her head—so long as the man was shouting about witches, it was a risk to involve other people. Witch trials might not be so much in fashion here, but Quỳnh remembered very well when slaughtering Cathars had been, and to be chased out of town by an angry mob was the last thing she wanted.
Well, no. Being arrested as a witch was the last thing she wanted.
For the space of a few hopeful breaths, Quỳnh thought they had lost the man. But then—“Witch!”
That wasn’t even the original fisherman. Now he had a friend.
“Damn it,” said Andromache. “I’d say to let them kill us, but we’ll probably revive before their eyes, and then they’ll really think we’re witches.”
“We could always run for the river,” Quỳnh offered, though the thought of letting herself drown again made her skin crawl with horror.
“No.” Andromache’s tone left no argument, and no doubt that she knew what Quỳnh had meant.
They ran through the streets, a few baffled shopkeepers stepping out of their doors to follow them, and then looped back around to the less-populated docks where they’d been before. Always their fishermen—the two of them looked similar enough to be brothers—kept up the pursuit. Apparently, Idiot had told his idiot brother all the gossip about Richard Bromley, and it had been much more interesting than the gossip he’d told Quỳnh.
Quỳnh was on the verge of suggesting that they commandeer Idiot’s boat, which would have the advantage of being satisfying as well as practical. Before she could, however, the absolute worst thing she could possibly see appeared, emerging from the shipyard shops where Quỳnh and Andromache had been hiding.
Yusuf and Nicolò, baffled, concerned, and with Yusuf’s scimitar drawn.
“What’s going on?” Yusuf shouted.
“Get Nicolò out of here!” Andromache shouted back. “And then get help, this madman is attacking us!”
“Witch!” Idiot 2 shouted, unoriginally.
But Idiot 1 had his eyes on Nicolò as, ignoring Andromache’s command, he and Yusuf ran closer to help the women.
Oh, thought Quỳnh. Oh, no, oh no oh no. Nicolò had never spoken to Idiot 1 in Bowdinnick. But he had entered the inn with Quỳnh, and left with her, and even Idiot 1 was quick enough to put the sums together.
“Nicolò,” she said sharply, “into the river, now!” She backed up her words with a mental shove.
Nicolò looked up at her with a stubborn tilt to his jaw and yellow-orange confusion radiating from him in waves. But there was no time to explain, no time for him to ask anything—another pistol shot rang out—a dark, dark spot appeared on Nicolò’s shirt, and he looked down at it, his confusion growing…
Quỳnh forgot about Idiot 1, and witches, and the river, and all of it. She ran to Nicolò to put pressure on his wound. Where was his heart? Where were his lungs? Did he have lungs? She wished she had ever thought to ask.
He looked up at her, his eyes still confused, but the yellow-orange mental waves were turning dark with pain, as dark as the blood on his shirt.
“You son of a bitch!” Andromache shouted. “You’ve killed him! Murderer!”
Idiot 1 looked stunned. Apparently he had never connected the idea of shooting someone with the idea of them dying. Quỳnh would have torn his head off with her bare hands, but she was too busy easing Nicolò to the ground before his crumbling legs could drop him.
“Get a physician!” That was Andromache again, but Quỳnh wasn’t sure who she was talking to, Idiot 1 or Yusuf.
Footsteps ran away and disappeared. Someone murmured something in a low voice. Quỳnh was furious.
“Don’t you dare die,” she told Nicolò, gripping his hand tightly as his thumb melted away. “Don’t you dare. You foolish boy, I forbid it.”
His face was turning a sickly grayish color, his breaths turning to gasping wheezes, but his mental laugh brushed against Quỳnh’s mind. I don’t think you’re in command of such things.
“That’s what you think,” she muttered nonsensically.
It must have been Idiot 1 who ran for the physician, because now Yusuf was on Nicolò’s other side, looking desperately between him and Quỳnh. “What can we do?” he asked, eyes large in his face.
They could hardly go back in time and tell the Quỳnh of the past that her quest for revenge was going to get the friendly sea monster who had rescued her killed. They couldn’t tear Idiot 1’s life from his body and somehow give it to Nicolò. Even if a doctor came instantaneously, transported there by their wishes, they could not save him, because no doctor would be able to save a human with this deep a wound, much less a creature whose anatomy he did not and could not know. And yet Quỳnh could not believe that Nicolò would die. Her mind refused to accept it. “Surely you didn’t crawl out of the water and grow legs and follow me all this way to die now, did you? What a stupid thing to do,” she said to him.
“Quỳnh,” said Yusuf in reproach, his voice cracking, but Nicolò only laughed his feather-light sea-navigator laugh, weaker this time.
“No regrets,” he said out loud. Something moved in his throat. He tried to swallow, but instead coughed up a great gout of black blood and collapsed against Quỳnh’s lap. The slow pulse in his arm went still, and the light in his eyes died as the gills along his ribs let out one last breath. The pulsing pain in Quỳnh’s mind vanished.
He was gone.
“You can’t go,” Quỳnh said softly, but he could no longer hear her. Yusuf lay his head down on Nicolò’s still chest and made a quiet, pained noise that hurt Quỳnh more than if he had screamed.
A hand reached down to clasp Quỳnh’s shoulder, and she looked up to see Andromache. “Oh, Nicolò,” she said, her eyes looking very old and very sad. “I knew he would go, but I thought we would have more time with him.”
Quỳnh could not quite make sense of everything she was feeling. She was irritated with Andromache for reminding her that they had known Nicolò was mortal. She wanted to kill Idiot 1. She wondered if they would still be able to catch the ship to Còrsega. She would never be able to go to Còrsega without thinking of this day. She felt a strange kind of satisfaction that she now understood why she had been so uneasy earlier. She was sad for Yusuf. She wanted to embrace Andromache. She was angry at Nicolò for dying. She wanted to embrace him.
She leaned down to place a kiss on his forehead where he lay in her lap. It was already cool—but then, Nicolò had always been cool to the touch.
Swallowing hard, she looked up. “Our friends the witch-crazy fishermen?”
Andromache gave her a sad smile. “Afraid they’ll be arrested as murderers. I don’t think we’ll see much of them again.”
“Good riddance, I suppose.” She gazed out at the water. “I’d kill them, but why bother?”
“I think it would only make more trouble,” Andromache agreed. “More’s the pity. I’d give you their heads on a plate if I thought it would make a difference.” She swallowed and looked down at Nicolò, whose legs had started merging back together into a tail and had ripped the seams of his breeches before he’d died. It was very clear that he was not human. “Shall we bury him in the river?”
It didn’t sit right, dumping him like trash into the Lez, but Quỳnh supposed it was as close to a proper burial for a sea-navigator as they’d be able to manage. She gently eased her way out from under Nicolò’s head and brushed a thumb over the place where his hair met his brow. “I think so.”
Yusuf had still buried his face in Nicolò’s chest, though. Andromache reached out an impatient hand to Yusuf, but Quỳnh reached out and grasped the hand in her own before it made contact. They would have to move quickly, before soldiers came to investigate the disturbance, but they could give their companion a minute or two to grieve a love that had not had time to bloom in full.
Andromache shook her head, wordlessly telling Quỳnh that their time was up, and Quỳnh nodded, conceding the point. Once again, Andromache reached out, but this time, Quỳnh let her grip Yusuf’s shoulder.
Only for her to let go again, startled, when Yusuf shot up again. “His heart is beating!” Yusuf’s dark eyes were wild, his beard mussed, and the joy in his face was almost terrible to behold.
“That’s impossible, Yusuf,” said Andromache with brisk kindness, but he shook his head.
“No—no, feel!” He grabbed her hand and placed it on Nicolò’s chest, just as he gasped through both mouth and gills and sat straight up, his mind emitting startled wonder that shone like sun on the water.
“Impossible,” Andromache said again, her eyes wide, but Quỳnh was already reaching out to feel the place where the pistol ball had shattered Nicolò’s chest and shoulder. Her fingers met cool, unbroken skin and solid bone; the shirt was torn and he was covered in thick black blood, but underneath, he was unhurt.
“You would have told me if your people could always survive bullet wounds, wouldn’t you?”
Nicolò nodded, looking as bewildered as Quỳnh had ever seen him. “We die of guns all the time,” he said out loud, and his voice was strong and alive.
Yusuf let out a disbelieving laugh. “My God! An immortal sea-navigator! Have you ever heard of such a thing?”
“No, never,” said Nicolò, turning his attention to Yusuf and staring as if he’d seen the most wondrous sight in the universe.
“I was just mourning the time I would not have with you,” said Yusuf, leaning in to grasp Nicolò’s face between his hands, “but oh, my love, we’re going to have that time, and I’m going to treasure every minute of it.” And then they were kissing, grasping each other like drowning men cling to a spar of wood in a storm.
“Another one,” Andromache murmured to Quỳnh. “Another one, and he’s not even human, and you met him under the ocean. I didn’t think I could still be surprised, but you’ve managed it.”
Oddly, Quỳnh wasn’t surprised. She should have been, but whatever it was that had felt so wrong this morning suddenly felt right. It all felt right, she realized, the four of them traveling together, all of them able to face the world without fear. “As a friend of mine once said,” she said, looking up into Andromache’s astonished face, “the tide has decreed it. The moon has willed it so.”
Nile’s life had gotten extremely confusing in the last few days. A near-death experience, a miraculous recovery, being ostracized by her friends and reassigned to some experimental medical research facility, all of that would have been enough to knock any woman on her ass. And that was all before she’d even met Andy and Quỳnh. The women who’d kidnapped her—or maybe rescued her, it was hard to tell—had said that they were an army of five. But Andy and Quỳnh didn’t seem like colleagues. No, they were very obviously girlfriends. Or wives, or whatever you called a relationship when you were thousands of years old and lived in an abandoned church by an airport in Paris. And the rest of their ‘army’ was, well…
The big blond guy with sad eyes and a wry smile, Booker, had somehow gotten her into a discussion of, of all things, Chicago politics. Nile had no idea how the hell he knew about the shitty alderman in her mom’s neighborhood, but then, she also had no idea how he could be over two hundred years old, so that maybe put his political savvy in perspective.
Joe, who seemed both weirdly friendly and weirdly chill about the idea that Nile had literally died and come back to life and was now (apparently) on the run from government agencies trying to experiment on immortals, was apparently about a thousand years old. And had fought in the Crusades. And had really strong opinions about the shitty romance novels Nile had on the ebook app of her phone. Like, the kind of opinions that kind of made Nile wonder if he wrote romance novels in his spare time.
And Nicky, who was like, four hundred or some crazy shit, had given Nile a neat little plate of bruschetta, asked her pleasantly about how her ride to Goussainville had been, and was currently sitting at a table and stirring a big old spoonful of salt into the glass of water he was about to drink.
He must have seen her staring at him, because he smiled and said, “Do you want some? It’s nice.”
Nile didn’t want to be rude, but fuck it, she was having a weird, weird day. “Do I want to drink salt water? No thank you.”
He shrugged, apparently unoffended, and Booker said with a laugh, “You think that’s something, you should see him with a raw fish.”
“What is the saying? Chacun à son gout?” Nicky said. “I like salt water, you like those terrible French philosophical novels. To each his own.” Nile didn’t know what the hell accent he had. All of them had faint accents of one kind or another, because all of them probably spoke a dozen languages. You had time to learn that kind of thing when you lived for hundreds or thousands of years.
Joe apparently picked up on her confusion, because he said, “Hey, it’s okay. You know how I said earlier that being immortal didn’t make us not human?”
It had been about half an hour ago, and a person didn’t usually forget being introduced to a man who had been born in the eleventh century, so yeah, Nile remembered. “Yeah?”
“Well, that’s true of most of us. But Nicky….” He smiled warmly at Nicky, and Nicky looked back at him with an amused, affectionate gaze. Nile wondered if Booker ever felt like a fifth wheel with this double lovefest going on all the time. “Nicky’s something a little different. Special.”
Nile looked from Joe to Nicky, hoping one of them would bother explaining that. “What does that mean?”
“You ever seen The Little Mermaid?” Booker put in, and Joe burst into laughter.
“That’s right,” said Nicky with a straight face. “Because I am always combing my hair with a fork.”
“That would mean you combed your hair at all,” said Quỳnh, bending down to kiss the top of his head before going to the counter to pour herself a glass of wine.
The Little Mermaid? Wait. They couldn’t possibly mean what Nile thought that they meant. “What the hell?”
“It is a bit of a complex story,” said Nicky, taking a sip of his salt water. Because that was apparently what mermen drank?
“You’re shitting me,” Nile said. “What, are unicorns real, too?”
Andy shrugged. “Sure. They’re called rhinoceroses, and you’ve probably seen one in a zoo.” She sat down across the table from Nile. “Look. I know you have a lot of questions, and we’ll try and answer them. But the truth is, there are parts of it even we don’t understand. Nicky’s right, it’s complicated, how the five of us met. You dreamed of us in the hospital, didn’t you?”
Man, the hospital, that seemed like a long time ago now. She thought back to the weird dreams she’d had—she’d thought they were anesthesia dreams, but now that she thought of it, she was having some intense déjà vu about this place, like maybe she had dreamed it. “Yeah. I did. Why? Did you make me dream that?”
“No,” said Joe, shaking his head. “We have them when a new immortal is born. And they stop when we meet. Unless, of course, we happen to already know the new immortal.” He winked at Nicky, who smiled.
“I didn’t have the dreams when I was in your shoes, Nile, but I know the others did, and that’s how they found each other, and how we found Booker. How I found Quỳnh? Well….” He leaned forward, staring earnestly at Nile, and in the dim light of the abandoned church his eyes glowed with a weird silvery gleam. “I believe it’s because we’re meant to be together.”
Since I'm meant to be indulging my id here, I went ahead and did what I always want to do, make a soundtrack for the story. Hope you enjoy!