Danae trudged down the path, a fruit-filled bucket at each end of the yoke she carried on her shoulders. Below on the beach, one of her shipmates, Kitley by name, was seated on the trunk of a fallen tree chopping some of the fruit she had already carried down from the forest. She watched as he worked, his hand a blur as he wielded the massive knife. Other than the hand, his body was motionless. He looked cool and comfortable, unlike Danae who was hot inside her heavy coat. She wished she could take it off, but its canvas was protecting her shoulders from the chafing of the yoke. Danae envied Kitley’s assignment for a moment, then she pushed back her feelings of resentment. She wasn’t the only one on the bucket detail; another shipmate, named Kodo, also was carrying the heavy pods down the hill. Kitley was an older man, not frail but thinner than any of the other crew. Still, Danae chafed a bit at the menial detail. She had done more complex work in Sharks’ Cove before she had been invited to become a sailor. She looked out across the water, seeing the distant hills of north Rubel. Not for the first time she wondered if she was suited to the seafaring life.
Their ship, the Friendly Lion, had left port on Rubel a day before loaded with bolts of cloth. Calling the harbor they had visited a port was generous; it was a simple pier in the mouth of a river. Captain Tennent had explained that Beinison claimed exclusive rights to trade with Rubel. This forced the Friendly Lion to sneak in and out, taking a slower, northern route. They had stopped at the island to take on water and gather food. Captain Tennent had particularly wanted to pickle some of the local staples. Danae and Kodo had been picking them since sunrise. Although the island was not uninhabited, they had not seen any locals. Danae wondered if their skin would be as dusky as hers. The weather was warm, and the plants that grew in the forest reminded her of where she gre w up in the south of Rubel. She suspected that there was a warm current that flowed here. It was strange to be so close to her old home and yet not have any plans to actually go there. She felt a wash of nostalgia, but pushed it from her mind. It made no sense to go back, though — she had left that place and those people to seek her own way in the world.
She reached the beach, her stride slowing to deal with the softer surface. There a line of barrels awaited. All were full save one; it was half-full of brine and fruit. Into this last she emptied her buckets. After she did that, she noted that the barrel was three-quarters full. This task was almost done. She looked back up the beach to where Kodo was descending with his own burden. He seemed much lighter on his feet than she had been. She wondered if he really had filled his buckets. If he had, then his was the last trip up to the forest. She was glad — her back and shoulders ached. She shrugged and stretched for a bit, then checked the seal on the first of the full barrels and tipped it over. The seal held, and she began to roll the barrel towards the ship.
The Friendly Lion had been anchored in a river mouth, taking advantage of the deep channel to reach the shore. She floated higher in the water than usual, due to the light load of cargo, so the crew had drawn it close enough to shore that Danae only had to wade waist deep to reach the gangplank. She pushed the barrel to the gangplank, then rolled it up on deck. She paused for a moment to catch her breath, then rolled it over to the side of the cabin where it would be lashed in place. She then headed back down to the shore for the next barrel. Kodo and Danae spent a half a bell bringing the barrels up to the deck. Danae lashed the barrels in place while Kodo returned to fetch the buckets.
She turned to see Blen Sailmaker coming out of the cabin. She smiled. Of all the crewmembers, Blen was the one she got along with best. It was he who had found her in Shark’s Cove and invited her onboard. He had vouched for her, putting his own pay at risk for her. She hoped she had not disappointed him.
“Good work,” he said, coming over to her. He tugged the barrels, and they didn’t move. “This should stay put until we make land again.” He looked up at the lowering sun. “The captain wants to leave just before dusk, to avoid any patrols.” He looked about. “You have a few bells. Take a break, take a nap. It’ll be a long run tonight.”
“Straight.” Danae nodded. She climbed down into the hold, then headed forward. Just aft of the prow was a single hammock. She rolled herself into it and closed her eyes. Above her she could hear Blen’s footfalls. After a mene she heard splashing, then steps on the gangplank. Blen spoke, and Kodo answered, but the words were indistinct. She expected Blen was telling Kodo what he had told her. Sure enough, after a moment Kodo clambered down into the hold. After clattering about he came forward. He also slept forward. Danae didn’t open her eyes or move, hoping he would leave when he saw the hammock occupied. He did.
For menes she lay there willing herself to sleep, but could not. The scents and sounds that reached her from outside were too familiar. She could not relax. It was as if she was expecting a visit that would not, could not come. That old panic, the urge to run away, to be set loose, welled up again after being quiet for so long. Finally she got out of the hammock. She climbed up the ladder and stood on the deck. Not a soul was in sight. She considered going to the cabin to see if Blen was there, then decided against it. That’s where the captain slept, and she didn’t want to intrude on his rest. Instead she padded down the gangplank. She waded to shore and stopped, looking up and down the river. No one was in sight. She headed downriver, heading for the seashore.
The crew had anchored the ship deep into the mouth of the river, hoping to hide it from any passing ships. Danae had to walk for a dozen menes or so to reach the spot where the river reached the ocean. The beach was unmarked by human feet, and relatively clear for at least a league in each direction. The inhabitants seemed to not frequent this shore, which is why the captain had chosen it. Danae left her coat on a fallen tree and waded into the river. The water was warm but silted. She swam to the other shore and stood, wet and bare, as the sun caressed her. The warm light glinted off her wet flank which was covered in a fine tracery of stylized fish scales rendered in black ink. She breathed deeply and stretched, flinging her brown-skinned arms back and shrugging her wide shoulders. Exhaling, she took off running up the shore
Her mind was remarkably clear as she ran along the edge of the water. Danae had expected to be more troubled by the sights and scents of these semi-tropical islands, but she actually felt comforted by them. The ocean here was calm and blue, like the waters she knew as a child. Part of her expected unhappy memories of her lost home to press in on her, as they had in the hold of the Friendly Lion, but that wasn’t what she was feeling. Instead, she felt freedom. Perhaps the fact that the beach was so empty helped. Memories of her childhood came to her: memories of running naked on the shore for bells and leagues, leaving her own marks on the blank sands. She felt good.
Ahead a small finger of the ocean extended itself inland, forming a small lagoon. She ran to it. A rocky outcropping at the far side punctuated the otherwise pristine beach, which was surrounded by unbroken forest. Almost without consideration Danae plunged into the clear water of the lagoon. Time seemed to stop as she dove again and again, exploring the colorful life that occupied the bottom. Finally the bottom sloped upward as she reached the far side. She surfaced again, and saw him.
He was sitting on the rocks just before her, and he was watching her. Her heart skipped a beat at the sight of him. Like her, he was naked, but that was hardly his most outstanding feature. His skin was dark green, and his shoulders and chest were covered with scales. His hair was dark and matted, and his fingers ended in black talons. She could not see his eyes, but she knew their pupils were slitted. She had seen his kind before. She stood and waded toward him. As she got closer the tracings on her thigh began to itch. She rubbed them and the itch faded.
“Hello,” she said. Her eyes shared her gaze between his wide, unblinking eyes and his sinuous body.
“Hello,” he replied. His speech was halting, but she had no problems understanding him. It was as if a second voice was speaking inside her head.
“You … are one of … us …” His lips barely moved while he spoke. He looked down at her thigh where she was still rubbing the itch away. There were the lines on her thigh, drawn in dark ink in the shape of scales.
“Perhaps …” she said. She looked around. The lagoon still appeared empty but for the two of them. Danae stood still and watched as he slipped off the rocks into the water beside her. She was still in shock at having met him. She didn’t flinch as he ran his hand across her shoulders. His hand was cold.
“You … are beautiful …” he said. He looked deep into her eyes. “Come. Swim with me.”
He slipped silently under the water. Danae followed, plunging into the warm water. He immediately surfaced, and she followed.
“No.” There was a spark in his eyes. “Swim with me.”
Danae returned his fire for a long moment. Then she moved her hand down and touched the lines of ink on her thigh. Her lips moved almost silently, his thin lips moving in sympathy. She uttered a short phrase in a tongue both proud and forgotten. As she did so he extended his arms and took her by the hips, pulling her toward him. Together they fell into the water.
She could smell that his name was Aleo. This knowledge was hers the moment the water closed over her head. She also knew that they were not alone. By the power of the spell the water brought her all this information, as well as strength, grace, and joy. She broke away from him and surged forward through the water, crossing the lagoon in moments. On the far side she found others. They were both male: sons of the sea. They regarded her with cold interest, sweeping over and around her, tasting her essence in the water. They turned and swam away as Aleo came up behind her. She in turn twisted around and fled across the lagoon as fast as she could, crossing the expanse of water in a few heartbeats. As she neared the stony outcrop she breached, sailing completely clear of the water. She flipped and spun and laid herself effortlessly across the warm stone. Aleo mirrored her movements exactly, landing on the rocks behind her in a spray of seawater.
Danae held her hand out before her eyes. Her skin was as blue as the deep sea, her fingers ending in black talons. Her gaze followed her arm up to the shoulder, then swept down across her body. Like Aleo, she was armored as a fish from her elbows to her belly. There were webs between her fingers, and her feet were flatter and more articulated. Save for the tangled green tresses that draped over her shoulders, her hair was gone. She was now a daughter of the sea. She looked back over her shoulder at Aleo. He moved closer, his slick chest slipping frictionlessly over her flanks.
The memory of her grandmother’s voice came to her. Danae had been a mere slender youth when her grandmother had first painted the scales on her flanks. It was in her blood, her grandmother had explained. Only certain people could work the enchantment and yet still walk the earth. For as long as the spell held, Danae could breathe the ocean, brave the depths with their cold and darkness, and had the strength of the sea. There was a danger, too, that if she ever embraced the life of the sea too dearly that she would never be able to return. This state held both power and responsibility, both freedom and danger.
She remembered her father’s voice also. Her father had been furious when he found out what her grandmother had taught her. What man would want a girl who was half fish? How would she find a place, even as a third wife? She was already of the age and would soon join the rest of the girls in the seclusion hut, before the choosing of wives. She must never reveal the family curse to anyone, he had said, or she would die an old, lonely woman. No, she must be silent and take her place in the tribe.
Both voices were still strong in her head, even after many years and many leagues. It had been a long time since she had last uttered that fey incantation. She had almost forgotten the high brilliance that filled her soul when she was a child of the sea. That ecstasy was only heightened by the sight of this man, this male, this full-grown ocean-seed. She had never felt a lust like this on land before. In an instant she knew she was in danger of losing herself.
“I cannot swim with you, Aleo,” Danae said, scrambling to her feet. She reached for the spot on her thigh where the tracing still shown. Aleo caught her hand.
“Do you not hear it?” He asked.
“I hear. I belong … elsewhere.” She gently pushed his hand away, and touched the lines. Again she spoke in the ancient tongue. As she did she exhaled the water from her lungs in a cough, then shivered. A glance downward showed that her skin was again brown, not green like his, nor white like Blen’s. She shivered again, feeling suddenly alone.
“They cannot understand you, not like us,” Aleo said, his hand on her shoulder.
“No one can understand me,” Danae replied, half to herself.
“Not even your grandmother?” Aleo asked. Danae started. How had he known? She turned to stare at him.
“I must go,” she said, jumping down off the rocks. How long had she been gone? She had to get … back. Back to the ship. Back to her other life. Her own life.
“Don’t go …” Aleo said, but she was already running up the shore toward the ocean. She had to swim across the mouth of the lagoon and she could see dark shapes swimming beneath her. She splashed up out of the water and onto dry land, feeling as if she was leaving part of herself behind. As she ran up the beach, the sounds of screegulls drove her onward.
When Danae reached the ship, Blen and Captain Tennent were standing in the water at the bow. Both were stripped as if for swimming, so she didn’t feel as awkward carrying her coat. How pale they looked, she thought. They talked quietly between themselves as they watched her approach.
“Are we leaving soon?” she asked as she drew near. Tennent shook his head.
“No. Kitley ate a few too many of the local fruit. He’s up there chumming the tree roots.” Tennent nodded at the forest in annoyance. “We’ll have to wait until tomorrow to push off. Looks like we get to relax for a day.” With that he stepped away from the boat and dove into the water, swimming away.
“He doesn’t seem too upset,” Danae said to Blen as she watched the captain go.
“No, he has a soft spot in his head for old Kitley.” He glanced down at Danae’s legs. “Your ink’s washing off.”
Danae followed his gaze. As always, after using the spell the lines of ink had been loosed and were washing away. “Yes, I’ll have to get them painted back on when I get to port.”
“Why not do it yourself?”
“I can’t reach all the way around me,” she said, turning for him.
Blen frowned and scratched his chin. “How much do they charge you?”
“I’ll do it for one.”
She hesitated a moment, then nodded. “Straight.”
The next day was occupied with fixing all the things aboard that no one ever had time to fix on a normal sea run. Danae was fast with her fingers and strong with her arms, so she was learning from Blen Sailmaker how to fix the sails. He wore his last name well, for he was skilled at working with the sheets. Danae watched him move. His sure and graceful movements reminded her of Aleo. Blen had brought her freedom and independence. She had never felt any desire to run away from Blen. As for Aleo …
Danae was no blushing virgin. Many years and leagues had passed since she had fled the village that fateful day. She had dallied with both love and lust, and had seen the sheen of that two-edged blade on the men and women in her life. Never had that urge held her: after a while it always began to smell like the fetid air of the seclusion hut, crowded and confining. Then, as now, the need to make her own way drove her onward. But Aleo was different. He did not smell confining. He tasted like the sea, tasted like power. He could be hers, and she could still be free. Together they could be so much more.
After the work was done she headed off toward the beach, a shawl her only garb. Soon she was running up the beach far from the ship, seeking the small lagoon. As soon as she could see the rocky outcrop her heart started skipping. He was there. She forced herself to slow, to take her time, walking the long way around the lagoon. She told herself she was doing it to avoid wetting her shawl. Any other reasons remained unformed in her mind. Still, her eyes were wide and her heart pounding when she reached the stones.
“You return,” he said simply.
“Yes.” She sat down beside him and looked out across the lagoon.
“Stay with me,” he said.
“I can stay a while, but then I must go.” But did she really, she asked herself.
“You know you are not truly one of them.”
Danae considered. Blen had been so very nice and the others had tolerated her, but there was still a distance, the same distance she felt with all others. And why not? Who could understand what she lived with? Who could understand the joy, the freedom, the longing the spell left in her mind every time she used it? Who could possibly understand, except someone who had felt it too?
“No,” she agreed slowly. “I am not one of them.” In her mind she could hear her father’s disapproval, feel her grandmother’s touch.
“You belong with me,” he said, caressing her shoulders. His touch was cold, but she did not draw back. The attraction was there, and it grew stronger the longer he touched her. She wanted him, all of him, to claim as her own. The part of her mind that was bonded to the sea wanted this attraction. The rest of her mind was ill at ease, however. She looked away.
“Where are the others?” she asked.
“They are here,” he said. He opened his mouth and emitted a shrill chirp. Danae looked out across the water of the lagoon. In a moment its surface writhed and rippled as the sons and daughters of the sea swirled underneath, the sunlight shattering on their dark skin and scales to form a moving constellation. A swell of joy flooded Danae’s heart. It seemed impossible that there could be so many like her, and Aleo …
“Join us,” whispered Aleo, his wide, green, slitted eyes staring deep into hers. A thrill fluttered in Danae’s gut at these words. In an instant her doubts evaporated, her mammal mind silenced. She nodded. His cold hand slid off hers as he turned and silently slipped off the rocks and into the water, his sea-green body instantly invisible. Danae touched the scales drawn on her bare flank and whispered the phrase she had so grown to fear. Leaning forward, she merged with the water.
As always the sea welcomed her. In an instant the dim waters of the lagoon were alight with sensations the world of dry earth could never feel. She darted effortlessly into the shoal of sea people, turning her scaled body in time to theirs. For the first time in her adult life she felt a family bond. Aleo glided alongside, his body caressing hers. Instinctively she moved into him and they intertwined and entangled for a moment, then he was gone.
The power of the spell took her and she broke away from the pod, arcing upward until she broke the surface in a geyser of spray. At the top of her leap she looked out across the island seeing the trees, shore and mountain. As she began to fall back she looked across the lagoon again. A flash of pink caught her eye. As she reentered the water she turned toward it.
At first Danae thought it was a dolphin, but then she saw the long swath of dark hair. Danae swam towards the strange sight. With a shock she knew what she was seeing; it was a child. It had pink skin, long black hair and large brown eyes with round pupils. The arms were a bit short and somewhat flattened, ending in wide hands with long fingers. It was a clearly a girl, but with a tail that ended in a broad horizontal fluke. The girl was alone, swimming along the bottom. Danae followed her and the girl slowed for Danae to catch up. Together they circled the main group, heading back for shore. When almost there the girl headed for the surface. Danae surged ahead, reaching the surface first. She watched as the child breached, blowing out a huge breath and taking another before diving again. Danae reached the shallows and stood up, her dark skin catching the late afternoon sun. She flicked back her tangled tresses and watched as the child circled her. The girl surfaced, then lifted her torso out of the water, dancing on her tail for Danae. She flashed Danae a perfect human smile. She was the most beautiful thing Danae had ever seen. Then she opened her mouth and emitted a piercing stream of squeals and chirps, alien and incomprehensible.
The water beside Danae erupted and Aleo was standing by her side.
“We leave now,” he said simply.
“Who is she?” Danae asked, nodding at the child, who was still dancing before her.
“A spawn from one of my mates,” he answered.
“One?” Danae asked.
“I am the leader,” he said simply. “All the females are mine.” With a shrug he dropped away, leaving only a vortex. His daughter leaped clear of the water and dove again, following him. In a shimmering stream the other children of the sea also followed, pouring out of the lagoon and into the sea.
“All the females … ” Danae said to herself. She watched them go, waiting until the last glint of sun off scale had faded. Danae touched herself and murmured a simple incantation. She waded out of the warm water and walked back to the rocks to get her shawl. She wrapped it around her naked shoulders, which were once again their natural brown hue. A light breeze touched her wet body, and she shivered. Leaving the lagoon, she walked back towards the ship.