Mar 4 2013 11:30am
Sea Change (Excerpt)
Enjoy this extended excerpt from Sea Change by S. M. Wheeler, out on June 18:
The unhappy child of two powerful parents who despise each other, young Lilly turns to the ocean to find solace, which she finds in the form of the eloquent and intelligent sea monster Octavius, a kraken. In Octavius’s many arms, Lilly learns of friendship, loyalty, and family. When Octavius, forbidden by Lilly to harm humans, is captured by seafaring traders and sold to a circus, Lilly becomes his only hope for salvation. Desperate to find him, she strikes a bargain with a witch that carries a shocking price.
Her journey to win Octavius’s freedom is difficult. The circus master wants a Coat of Illusions; the Coat tailor wants her undead husband back from a witch; the witch wants her skin back from two bandits; the bandits just want some company, but they might kill her first. Lilly's quest tests her resolve, tries her patience, and leaves her transformed in every way.
A powerfully written debut from a young fantasy author, Sea Change is an exhilarating tale of adventure, resilience, and selflessness in the name of friendship.
Acid flowed at the table more often than wine and had long since ceased to cause Lilly alarm; her attention remained on the soup even as Father asked, “Does the thought of me still pain your head, love?”
Cool, Mother replied, “I fear I am coming down with some strange illness, for I suffer still. I should go to the baths and—”
His habit was to swallow such lies with a drought of the liquor at hand, but tonight the bottle had been emptied already. “And by what means will you have a child of mine while resting there?” He laughed, a deep, drink-rough noise. “Mourning the parting, will you lie with me the night before – then abort whatever is thus got and have a bastard by another man, to return to this house and claim—”
“Lilly.” Mother looked to her, fire on her tongue such that all her husband’s anger seemed but sparks. Here was not the woman who called Lilly sweetheart and cradled her face between her hands; in such a temper, she looked taller than Father, her presence heavy with the soot of past fury. “Dinner is over. Go to your room.”
Lilly filched a glazed bun from the table as if she refused to go without something sweet; wrapping it in a napkin as she went out, she shut the door behind her then put her ear to the keyhole. She dismissed the thought of capture, for the servants were all stiff-faced and silent at the edges of the room, or gone away to the kitchen if they could, ashamed to serve a family that would descend into this crudity – unless households of old blood were the same, and all servants must foster the ability to overlook lapses in decorum.
Though not given to eavesdropping, this argument concerned her; younger siblings would mean a sea-change, a reshuffling of priorities, danger along with freedom. The thick door muffled their voices but it didn’t matter; when their war came to open battle they fought lustily, snide murmurs giving way to shouts.
“If you won’t have my child—”
“I promised you one, and that one is enough.” She spoke now in her country burr, the honest voice; and softer, almost inaudible: “I will not die with the second.”
“I know. I know. But you’re better than your forebears. And what is she, this girl?”
Giving a short laugh, Mother said, “Your child.”
“But no sweet girl for me, not soft-eyed: no, sharp and sea-loving—”
Miss Scholastika caught Lilly by the ear, and dragging her by it as she only did outside of Father’s sight – though happy to do so when Mother watched – took her from the door. Both of them stayed quiet; Lilly bit her lip with eyes brimming, and Miss Scholastika kept herself to the pinch-mouthed look that the toothless excelled at. Only when they reached Lilly’s room did the servant release her and ask, “How shameless are you to be eavesdropping?” Her voice quavered – not angry, but fearful. “There are things a child shouldn’t hear.”
“They voiced those before I left,” Lilly said, reasonable, and flinched as the woman’s hand came up; but Miss Scholastika only rested it against her cheek, the side of her face where the skin looked darkly bruised, brown and black, swollen.
Whispering, now, “Both of them love you.”
“Yes. —Father wants a daughter he can parade or a son to become a merchant-marquis in his place, though.” Lilly moved away, smiled – and meant it. “Ma’am, I am happy.”
“You don’t know what that means,” the old woman said, bitter, and before leaving added, “Turn your mind to your books, child. I will want to hear what you know about our neighbor kingdoms tomorrow.”
Lilly did no such thing, knowing that the servants’ ability to turn a blind eye extended to her behavior. Slipping off her satin shoes and stockings and full skirts, she donned instead last year’s skirt – it fell just above her ankles and still fitted her waist – and on her feet put the soft leather shoes Mother gifted her with a conspiratorial wink and a finger held over her lips.
The sash window, oiled, slipped noiselessly open. Beneath it was springy lawn which straightened after she passed, showing no footprints to betray her. When her legs were shorter the path through garden to the slender broken shell path down to the sea had seemed long; now she ran to meet the sea, the salt air scouring off her gentlewoman’s skin.
The water churned active today, the low sun golden on its whitecaps and the spray hands that reached for her; it was playful in the manner of creatures that ate humans with a smile. Once a water-woman had beckoned her with a scaled hand and a sharp-toothed grin, just like that.
The path she took she sometimes walked in the late evening when the night slithered in hollows; she had never fallen on it. These steps she knew: over skittering shale with impressions of strange animals and through a tangle of ocher stones, on a sedge-thick strip of land from which one could hear the gulls but nothing more, and down again to a slope of dark stone that plunged into the ocean. She patted the still-hot bun in her pocket, eyes scanning the water for a wake or the break of a smooth burgundy curve; and saw far off a patch of ocean that did not gleam with the sun. Grinning, she waved her arms to him: I’m here, I’m here, come fast. It seemed he dawdled; for some time nothing broke the surface again.
Until eight slick, suckered limbs weaved from the water, with their immense strength rolling aside the boulders that lay at the bottom of the slope. Behind them came a sleek and rounded shape, ridged in a brow over golden discs of eyes which were bright as the gold crucifix in Father’s study – and held more love than any dead man’s gilded face. She demanded of the kraken, “When did you get so sneaky?”
“I’ve been hunting seals.” His voice rumbled and sang high at once, wind moaning in cliffs, nipped short in the narrow passages and shaking the larger. “You are troubled.”
“No, no. —A little. Come close, I have a present for you.”
To her side the sea creature came in a roil of tentacles. Two of those settled around her feet, the delicate tips curled around her ankles. He loomed well over her, eighteen hands high at his tallest, though at the moment he compressed himself lower to the ground so that he might look her in the eye. “I will return to your troubles.” Then: “A present?”
With panache she plucked the bun from her pocket and unfurled the napkin around it. Steaming still, citrus-scented, and only lightly squashed, she felt quite proud at this newest offering.
“The things you humans eat!” He took it with such gentleness that the sugared sides bent only a little. The top of it he stroked. “Sticky. And so soft.” One last pass, and then he tucked it under his bulk. “Stings a little on the inner mouth – and crumbles at the beak. Interesting! What do you call it?”
“A bun with icing and orange zest.” She rested her hand above his eye. “Should I bring you other desserts?”
“Oh, yes.” He ruminated a moment, singing faint whale-song under his breath. “Should I bring you a seal?”
Again she laughed. She did often with him, and rarely at home. “I don’t think my teeth are up to it.”
“Cannibal,” she replied without the least rancor. He kept a sort of sea monster kosher for her: no men at all nor capsizing of fishing ships for their freight of fishes.
“Since you’re not interested in a gift from me to match yours, tell me your worries.” He shifted, blocking the wind.
She flicked a dismissive gesture. “Oh, they come at my age.”
“They have not for me.”
His brow-ridges made convenient places to set her hands when she wanted contact. “You’re younger than me. Another year and you will be full of woe with your coming of age.” She shook her head. “Marriage – society – they should be a part of my life, now, but are not. My company consists of yourself, my father’s merchants, my mother’s maids.” Now it was her turn to ruminate; lightly, he pressured her ankle. “The house is restive. They want a more elegant daughter to parade about.”
“I would parade you in the hall of the monarchs of the ocean, if you could breathe water.”
“I know.” She tapped her cheek, indicated her wetted feet. “I would suit it, wouldn’t I? But until such a time as I develop magical abilities, I must be canny and fear what they might in rashness do. Marry me to some brave young man willing to take an ugly wife for the sake of my father’s gold, perhaps.”
“Why would they be foolish? You never spoke of them that way,” said he.
“They were born country folk,” she said, quiet, “and the fear of failing their nobility is in them. Young ladies are married to young gentlemen, you see, or else become maiden aunts. Or – my father fears that. My mother does not fear or does not show fear, ever.”
“You don’t speak of these things to me.” Remonstration, there; they could tolerate much from each other but never lies, neither explicit or of omission. Misunderstandings were too potentially dangerous.
“I could only explain them clearly now, I think.” She breathed out, glanced towards the sun riding the horizon. “I’m not used to fearing the future.”
“Then don’t. You tell me that the future is choice and the present a starting point.” Those words came first from Father but sounded so different in the kraken’s mouth that it might as well have been a different maxim. “Why assume that the present will not give you better choices?” He touched her cheek. “Think of sugared buns and stories and sun dials for now. Brave young men can be met when they come. I could relocate them for you. Does that make you feel better?”
“However impractical and short-sighted – yes. Now tell me about seal-hunting, Octavius.”
On her eighth birthday, her parents held the first and last party in her honor. In a new cream frock and with her black hair tamed into a complicated braid, Lilly felt quite delighted – numb even then to familial conflict. Father yelled about putting in the open what ought to be hid; Mother stayed silent until he paused a moment, then asked, “Are you ashamed?” He said no more. Lilly suffered a moment of shyness when Father crouched down to tell her, “Don’t confirm in their minds that you are hell-spawn, all right?” Patting her cheek, he went to greet the guests in his strange, terse manner.
Lilly walked beside her mother a while, crunching through the new-fallen leaves and nibbling at deviled eggs, waiting to be talked to. No one did, though they glanced at her a little; they were local gentry mostly, a few wealthy shopkeepers from town who had met her before when Mother took her into town. The whole place smelled of cologne and perfume and sounded like a chicken coop, of which she rather disapproved – she liked this garden for thinking, not playing.
Mother talked to a delicate-walking, rounded woman about the production of linen – how it was made, traded, stitched into gowns – with the lady exclaiming in surprise, eyes round, at the complexity of it all. In the middle of a sentence, Mother gently tapped Lilly’s shoulder and pointed towards a knot of children. No words; none needed. Lilly obeyed.
They bunched like sheep before the dog as she came close; one of them made the gesture against the evil eye, which she accepted with a shrug. “Does the party please you?”
A boy emerged from the herd – well-fed, well-clothed, her cousin by Father’s sister, a relative mocked often over dinner because she had come running to beg for money when her noble husband ran out. Young von Graf, he called her cousin, and she couldn’t quite remember his first name. “We’re too afraid of the spells that must be all over this place.”
“Well, let me assure you that I haven’t encountered a single one in all my years living here.” His name was not so important; he had an ugly sneer. Perhaps he knew about Father’s mockery.
He said, “Does it count as encountering if you lay it down yourself?”
“Yes, I imagine it does.”
He spat; she flinched, but he did it so weakly that it splashed onto the ground a good foot in front of her. Flushing, he said, “They say the ocean washes off witchery. I’ll go down there to protect myself.” And away he stomped.
Lilly looked to the others, spreading her hands a little, asking: are you that foolish?
A girl piped up with, “There is a good lawn for playing on.”
The child must know that Lilly would not participate when she wore a new, light-colored frock; the dozen of them went scampering away. Biting down on her hurt like a dog chewed a wound, she retreated back into the crowd of adults, nodding to those she knew, looking for Father. He would be sympathetic to her plight, being sensitive as she to the negative reactions she garnered. More sensitive, perhaps; he drank over it, while she only paced the house, sometimes.
Searching, she didn’t know herself searched for until a heavy hand on her shoulder spun her around. Old von Graf scowled down at her, recognizable on accounts of being swarthy with a quite aristocratic beak of a nose. “Where is my son?”
Lilly stood on her toes and tilted her head to the side, looking towards the lawn. “He isn’t with the others? I suppose he really went down to the beach, milord.”
He shoved a little when he let go of her, but hesitant; perhaps the count believed his wife when she said that her brother would give them money. “I’ll check the house.” Away he bulled through the crowd, the gentry parting before him with nervous titters.
Counterproductive, that. Being responsible insofar as being the source of fear that drove her cousin from the grounds, Lilly circumvented the guests and took the little broken shell path that led to the tame beach which lay a terrace below the garden. Kicking imported sand from her shoes, she stared out into the waves, lost for a moment. Deadly, wild, fickle, her mother called it, a place for sirens and not little girls, after which words she would turn Lilly’s head gently away. She must have known that once the salt-thick spray touched her daughter’s face and the waves crashed a welcoming song, Lilly would be enchanted.
A witch couldn’t be enchanted, could she? That proved she was human if nothing else would.
Young von Graf, she reminded herself, and finding a set of footprints leading away to the brown rock and tide pools which made up most of the coast, she padded into unknown territory. However smitten her heart might be, prudence was ingrained; there were mysteries enough to prod in the tide pool daughters of the sea, scuttling crabs that pinched to make her squeal and silver fishes who panicked at her shadow. She went around a dead fish and the gulls feasting on it much as she had the guests and their champagne and escargot, though with far more fascination for the bird-laughter and the fish’s strewed entrails.
Another glance around revealed no cousin; she would have to confess to the priest that she felt no guilt over this, as she doubtless should have. A foolish boy could suffer real hurt in this place.
Just then there came a tea-kettle, jester-laugh noise, over which one of the birds flopped its wings and jabbed its beak. Something still alive hadn’t nearly the charm in being eaten than a dead thing; not thinking much, she rushed the bird with waving arms as she sometimes startled the starling flocks when the servants weren’t watching. Crying insults at her, the gull took flight. One couldn’t save a thing and not take a glance to see what it might be; Lilly crouched and stared down into the shallow pool over which the bird had taken such interest.
The thing in it was bright red, craggy-skinned, and the size of Father’s fist, which was to say not very large but with a great deal of presence; around it limbs coiled like petals circling a flower’s heart. The water came halfway to the top of its bulbous body. It made kettle noises at her. Good sense rolled right out of her head with the silly thought that adventures started with such things; plunging her hands into the water, she drew it out on her palms.
Its limbs whipped out and made erratic lightning shapes and a hard little beak pressed against her skin. It had the most beautiful eyes, beaten gold with a human’s pupils, and she thought: like the sea monsters on the best illuminated manuscripts. After it got over its startlement or perhaps decided she would neither eat it nor be frightened, it promptly squeezed her fingers in an eightfold hug. Curious, she touched the top of its head; found the skin not slick like the rest of it, but papery. It needed a better tide pool; one where it could hide and be fully submersed. So she stood and went to find one, venturing closer to the water.
A few steps and its skin smoothed, darkened to a pleasant sienna, like the rocks. “What are you?”
She wavered, startled and perhaps a little wide-eyed. “I – well, I’m eight today. Eight and a bit lonesome at the moment, and I suspect over-protected.”
It had a fluting voice, lispy. “I will trade you company for some of your protection. I know many good conversationalist I could introduce you to – kelp, sharks, rivulets flowing into the sea...”
“The protection is on loan from my parents. I don’t think I can give it away. Thank you, though.” She inspected the pools that hemmed her, squinted down at the waves rattling the shore a bit too far beneath her feet to be comfortable. “Do you wish to be in the ocean?”
“Oh, no. It is wicked today. Look how far away it left me!” He whistled what might have been a sigh. “You turn your back one moment and the waves pull away, sniggering.”
She crouched to let him inspect the options. “Does the ocean talk?”
“If you listen. Most hear only hush, hush, but that’s her telling them to be quiet so that she may speak.” Then, without so much as a countryman’s ‘bye’, he dripped off her hand into the pool, the movement startlingly liquid.
She pouted after him until rocks rattled behind her. Scrambling to her feet, she turned expecting something demi-human with bright eyes and a sly smile and unspeakable desires; instead she looked into the frightened, scuffed face of Young von Graf. “I must have been wrong – this is your element, not the garden.” He spread his palms all bloodied and gravel-studded. “I fell! I’m the best athlete at my father’s country estate – I would never be so clumsy without a spell.”
“Maybe the others let you win.” She deserved the glare that won her. “I mean – can you get back? I could lead you.”
“Right over a cliff, maybe.” He jerked forward, caught up her chin to tilt it to the side, looking at her birthmark. “This is the Devil’s mark, then. It’s not so scary. Just ugly. Is your beauty what you sold to get your witchy powers?”
Dry, thinking of what her father would say in this situation, she asked, “Does that mean you think the other side of my face is pretty?”
His hands dropped to roughly clench her shoulders, smearing the good cloth with his blood and dirtiness, which she wasted a shocked second being offended over before she realized he meant to shove her.
Catching at his wrists, she said, “I’m not on speaking terms with Satan.”
His lips pulled back off his teeth in a grimace, but before he could carry through, he fell with a squealing, childish scream of pain. He slicked blood across his hand and calf as he fumbled at the wound, whimpering. His trousers caught on the rocks, tore, as he scrambled back; gaining his feet, he bolted. Lilly went back on her heels, an offer of help dying in her hands. He must have been fine after all.
A weight on the bottom of her skirt made her tense; but it was only the little sea creature climbing up her side to perch on her shoulder. It was flushed to scarlet again and sang what seemed to be a victory song, two of its tentacles waving after Young von Graf’s retreating form like a pit fighter inviting an opponent to come back at him. It was a cool, dampening presence, its cheek against hers, one of its limbs curled against her nape. She realized that the warm liquid soaking into the shoulder of her blouse was her cousin’s blood.
“Can we talk more now?” It calmed. “I would like to talk until sundown, until tomorrow morning, until the evening after that—”
“Wait,” she said, “my parents will worry, and I really must eat and bathe and study and do other necessary things.”
It touched her cheek. “I made you sad. Sirens weep, too.”
She had cried, a little, but not at him. “No, he did. You just frightened me a bit.”
“That isn’t better!” As if afraid to hurt her, his tentacles all curled up close to his body – which meant she need reach up and steady him with her hand.
She breathed out, considered. “I have one question. Can you refrain from being a sea monster? Eating people, sinking ships — that sort of thing. I could pretend I didn’t know but that’s not the right thing to do.”
“People?” he said, dubious. “There are so many people. I can’t eat stones.”
Lilly blushed – she held a talking sea creature on her shoulder and she did not stop to think that his prey would be thinking beings, too? “Humans. I’m sorry to be so biased, but the thought bothers me.”
“Lots of creatures have that sort of loyalty.” He patted her cheek as if testing her reaction, then uncoiled to hold himself up again. “All right. I won’t eat humans if it means you will speak with me.”
“Yes, thank you. I am pleased— No, I’ll say as I thought. I am very, very glad to talk with you. But I can’t spend all my time here, I’m afraid.” She tilted her head back, eyes catching on the clouds boiling white on the horizon. “Things like that,” she gestured at them, “aren’t good for young people. —Would you hear me if I called your name from this beach?” She blushed, wondering if he might slither contemptuously away at her presumption. Dogs came when called, not people.
“Yes!” He knotted around himself, hiding. “But I haven’t a name.”
“Oh.” She looked to him, thinking: eight limbs, gold eyes, both intelligent and merry. It called for something with an ancient but teasing feel. “Octavius! Or Octavia. —Which would you be?”
“The first one. I like the noises.” Again those arms wriggled with excitement. “Octavius, Octavius — I’ll have a name to tell the sirens when they say I will never grow big, I will say, I must match my long name by growing long. And the selkies cannot eat something with such a strong word-weapon.” He giggled, touched her cheek again. Fascinated with the texture of her skin, she realized. “Thank you.”
“I didn’t know it meant so much. I’m glad I could give it to you.” She sighed, checked the sun. “But I have been gone far too long and someone will worry. I must go.”
“But you will be back tomorrow?”
She looked to the ocean. “Yes. And the day after.”
Perhaps it should have shamed her when parents met her with closed faces. Mother asked, “Have you hurt yourself, then?”, and Father snapped, “I can see she’s not. Did you shove that boy? Your cousin. Did you go down to the beach?”
“I apologize,” she began, and meant to clarify, but before she could Mother caught her up by the elbow and led her towards the chateau. When she glanced back, Father had pasted on his merchant face and was turning towards the crowd.
“He can only gloss this over so much,” Mother said in an undertone. “Do you like painting, Lilly? Needlework? —Maths and reading?”
“Watching Father at the books – is that maths?” As they came onto the front stoop she brushed self-consciously at the shoulder of her frock, but that only smeared the stains. “Are you angry?”
Mother did not answer until she had closed the door behind them. “No. How could I be? I expected this.” She reached down, taking the ribbon from the end of Lilly’s hair, and finger-combed it straight.
A heavy coat made it possible to go down to the water, where she would tuck Octavius against her belly and listen to him tell stories of the distant places he traveled to. The open was dangerous for him, he said, but some things could only be seen when one was small enough to slip into little spaces. Today he had talked her through the process of weaving sea-grass baskets, and though the first had been messy the second was a perfect little bowl that held water as tightly as any china dish. Though they could have stayed forever on the beach, they parted; he had to begin his next journey, and she needed to study her Latin.
The maids responded poorly to the basket when she showed it to them and questioned her at length as to its provenance; thankfully none of them brought up sea creatures so she could truthfully answer no to all conjectures. Figuring that she best broach this subject with her parents before the servants did, she ventured up the floating staircase – an architectural and not magical feat, much to the disappointment of her younger self – to her father’s study. There a screen and portentous-eyed statue provided a hiding place from which to assess the situation.
“Shall I find another serpent for us to kill? Would it make you yourself again?” Mother’s sharp voice. Lilly thought: I should retreat now.
Father, then, sounding lost: “No. —I worry.”
“Where is the man I married? Look at your shame.” When she felt affectionate, she called her husband brave; having asked about it, Lilly knew this was because her father had decided to be both a merchant and a noble, though the latter should have prevented the former. Perhaps he had been a soldier once, too; they were never clear about that fact.
“He spawned and like a trout died of it.”
Lilly preferred not to be called spawn. Padding back down to the top few stairs, she stepped on the creaking one, then came up and around the screen. Curtsied. “Mother, Father. Might I interrupt?”
Father stood before the desk and Mother behind it, sitting in his vast leather chair with ankles and wrists delicately crossed. She should have looked dwarfed by it and did not. He said, “Come in, Lilly.”
She did, holding up her treasure. “I learned how to do this. I’m proud to be so crafty.”
“Yes, yes, we are too.” Father wandered over to lift it from her hands, turning it this way and that. “Who taught you?”
“A man?” Mother inquired.
His voice harsh enough that Lilly could imagine him as a soldier, he snapped, “By God, woman, she’s eight!”
“All the more likely, then.” Mother rose. “Listen, Nikolaus. —Lilly. Why must you never be alone with a man?”
“Because many of them would like to marry me for our money,” Lilly said, bored with the reiteration of this lesson. How could her father not be aware of it? At least it distracted them from the basket, which Father dropped back into her hands. “Some men will force the issue.” Lilly looked into his eyes, thought she detected disappointment. “Mother has left out the details.”
“I—” Father stood tense. “You don’t need to know. That’s why—”
“No parent can watch their child close enough to protect them better than they can guard their own self. I came to you pure, did I not? You may thank what my mother taught me for it. Besides, so long as you treat her as a dog that needs to be trained – not as a girl that is raised – I will undertake her instruction.” She rose to her feet. “We can talk later. Are you not meeting that spice merchant today? Put on your impressive face, dear. The one you wear at present doesn’t suit you.”
Still groping after sense, he said, “You were a tailor’s daughter, and she is—”
“And she is the daughter of a tailor’s daughter.” With which she swept out of the door; Lilly always thought her mother’s stride more elegant than the mincing of most ladies, but – a tailor’s daughter? Truly?
Father laid his hand on her head. “I didn’t think you so... Aware.”
“Aware? Sensible, Mother says.” She tucked the basket behind her back so that it didn’t come up again. “Spice trade is important. I won’t bother you anymore.”
“And you understand that, too?” He squeezed her shoulders. “I should speak with you more often, child.”
A man who looked so wounded needed salve, but she remembered far too many rebuffed hugs to make the offer. “I would like that, Father,” she said, and ducked out the door.
At the bottom of the stair she met the spice merchant. Tall, dark, and swathed in fine red cloth stitched with grey and gold, he had the sway of a sailor in his walk and the active eyes of a bird. Looking unimpressed but mild, he followed a manservant – Mother must have summoned him for Father’s sake. Since she stood on the fourth step up, Lilly could look levelly into his eyes.
He smiled in what seemed to be genuine affability – but he was, after all, a seller of goods. “Lady Lilly, I presume?”
She curtsied and attempted to come down the stairs at once, which proved to look quite a bit like tripping. She dodged his helping hand, smiling fixedly. “Yes, sir. I’ll be on my way.”
He bowed to her, solemnly said, “I am sure you are much relied on. I would not detain you.”
“Sir, might I know the name of he who is gracious enough to say so?” Maybe that came across as her mother faced with rudeness; the manservant, who had fallen back in despair upon seeing Lilly on the stair, waved his hands as if to push the words back into her mouth.
The merchant reminded her bizarrely of Octavius when his expression of surprise gave way to amusement. The other smile had been false; the true one showed more around his eyes than mouth. “The Sheik Efreet, milady.” He inclined his head.
“I apologize, sheik, for my daughter. She is willful.” Father stood at the top of the stairs, his voice far more grave than contrite.
The spice merchant tsked and flipped his hand as if brushing away a pestering fly. “It is no problem, marquis. I have three children at home and the youngest manages to be wayward, though she is still in the cradle. —But we must be to business, if you will excuse us, lady.”
Lilly floundered, then tried, “Of course. It was my pleasure to meet you.”
“The pleasure is entirely mine.” Yet he was distracted already, the smile falling from him as he looked up at Father; he went up the stairs without being invited. To him, the sheik said, “I’m most interested in this prospect of autonomy, milord.” He spoke the term of respect as some spoke brother: kinship, equality, but not fondness.
She showed Octavius a sun dial, but he never understood why humans would construct such things. The position of the moon and the sway of sun’s path across the sky, yes; but not such little units as hours, minutes, seconds. He found them silly. The years, though – those he counted with her, by season, by his own growth from palm-sized to hip-high to shoulder-height.
She had a good life to lead, she thought – tutors, her father prying better deals from merchants with wine and the implicit threat of his witch daughter at the table, trips with Mother into town to buy necessities and ‘observe real life’, introduction to the fine horses that Father kept but never rode. Above all else: her wandering with Octavius. They traded stories, and he showed her what mysteries the ocean washed up on their little shore.
When he was still small, they would meet on the tame beach, and she would carry him up to the chateau to sneak with him through the gardens and even the halls, showing him human life. In return he brought her to places where the ocean let a part of herself be seen by the dry world; once she met a ribbon fish who spoke an elegant greeting and inquired after the state of the sun. Upon hearing it still burned bright, it twisted away to seek deeper waters once more. The sharks were kind, also, though they spoke less and watched more.
She took up another language, the one of their neighbors to the East, and Father would drag her into his study with a faint whiff of alcohol on his breath and show her what the accounts meant. Mother continued to give her practical, frightening knowledge, just as when she was young; but now, as if in reversal of the usual parental pattern, she added fairy stories to the mix. This increased attention meant she could not meet the kraken as often; yet life remained at an equilibrium of calm happiness, even when Octavius’ growth meant they could no longer sneak onto the chateau grounds together.
The ocean wore a pungent cologne on summer days as hot as this, but Lilly would have tolerated a rotted sardine hung around her throat for the sake of the sunlight on her skin and a breeze to brush away sweat. On a scraggy-limbed bush she hung her shoes and broad-brimmed hat and hiked her skirt to knee-height with the use of a belt.
At their beach, Octavius greeted her by thrusting towards her a much-rusted device, something alike to the inner gears of a watch, though so sorely degraded that she found it difficult to discern one piece from another. “I found it on a ship,” he said, “and I cannot understand what it is.”
“It seems...” She turned it over in her hand, careful of a sharp-edged barnacle that clung to the back. “Something like a clock, perhaps?”
“You do not know?” He curled a tentacle around her wrist, delicately retrieving the thing. “Why, I will have to return it. A human thing at the bottom of the sea is free to whoever takes it up, but it must be the product of a different animal — one who, perhaps, meant to return to it.”
“You are not a very discerning thief, to have chosen this of all sunken treasures,” she teased, touching the ridge of his brow; she no longer had to bend to do so. “I fear I am losing my function as your guide through the human world. Where you bring me to sights, I can only tell stories.”
“But what stories they are. You approached with an expression that said you have found another worth telling.” He swept a rock free of sea-wrack and gestured grandly for her to sit.
“Here.” She handed him a small bag in which she had put a handful of unshelled nuts, seated herself. “For some time I have heard hints and whispers about midsummer and all its properties. You look perplexed – but the weather doesn’t mean much to you. Well, it is a day of some mystical note, and I hear that some commemorate it more fantastically than others. There is a place–” She waved down the coast. “–not so far from here where there is an ancient abandoned church and a cluster of hovels in which live pagans.” There came times when no amount of explanation could communicate an idea; despite considerable conversation on the topic of religion, they had settled on his understanding the terms to be a manner in which humankind categorized itself. “They have been described as having the antlers of deer by day and the bodies of wolves at night – which seems rather odd, but not altogether unlikely.”
Octavius turned an almond in his tentacle, positioning by some precise measure that she could not discern, and with a flex of muscle cracked it neatly down the center. He offered her the nut thus shelled. “After the griffon and the horse—”
“Yes, precisely.” She watched him manipulate a hazelnut, which by the relative delicacy of its shell presented something of a problem for him – the first she had given him ended as crumbles and splinters. “However, I imagine that being wolf-bodied might interfere with their midnight festival, which it is said involves much dancing about in scandalous clothing and sacrifices to devils.”
He hummed, thoughtful; applied pressure light enough to fracture the shell then pulled it apart with two suckers, presenting the meat with a triumphant whistle. “When is midsummer?”
“Oh, not long off. That is why there is so much talk about it.” She tilted her head, recognizing Octavius’ smile – inasmuch as his posture of happiness could be compared to a man’s expression. “What do you plan?”
“There cannot be too many ancient abandoned churches along this coast.” He stretched, one tentacle touching the approaching front of the tide; it would drive them higher, soon enough, or else apart. They often used the ocean to prevent her staying too long and arousing suspicion. “The night is not so good as the depths for sneaking, but we might slither close enough to look down on these rituals. Then you might show me something of humankind again.”
She hesitated in the act of taking a cracked nut from him. It was certainly not her habit to venture out at such a time. Yet – she would be accompanied by a sea monster. Besides, when would she next have a chance to see pagans go about their dark rites? “Yes, I believe I can find my way here after sunset, but I must be back before morning.”
“Or your dress will become rags and your mother a dove?”
She seemed to recall that particular story went another way; but then, his version could doubtless be found, too. “Nothing so interesting.” Lilly pulled her toes back from the encroachment of stinging sea-spray, nose wrinkled. “But who knows what strange stories would be told after the townsfolk heard the uproar of my being missed?”
Later, when he found them, he told her first, “There are antlers set like wreaths on their doors, and their dogs are very much like dogs, and there is a ruined church at the center of their town – are they correct ones, do you think?”
They determined yes, they would likely be; and if not, the trip would be no hardship, for Octavius indicated that the path was an easy one to tread. Though he had found the place by ocean, on a new moon night he had gone by land, and Lilly trusted him on his assessment, for he was well accustomed to her abilities after so many years playing among the stones of the coast.
He could not have told her how difficult it would to go over the sill of her bedroom and into the fragrant night. Pulling her jacket tight around her though the night was not cold, she stepped hesitantly away from the chateau; thought: Octavius will worry if I linger here.
She knew that she should have brought a lantern before she even left the garden; the gravel seemed to move more loosely underfoot in the dark, and the moon was not so much help with clouds tracing fingers across its face. The path to their beach proved easier, for she was accustomed to finding a path of particular safety, here. She could see Octavius by the coiling of his limbs, the moonlight catching in the ripples of the ocean. She grinned, put her foot down wrong, skidded the last few feet to his side. With a huff of embarrassment she got back to her feet, waving aside Octavius’ offer of help.
“Should you have brought a lantern?” Octavius piped a noise of repentance, guilt. “I did not think, though you said that your eyes are not for the night—”
She rested her hand on his side, asked, “Will you guide me?”
This proved to be better as a dramatic gesture of friendship than as a practical plan of action, for even with his best effort Octavius could not warn her of every knot and hollow, and she was not patient enough to toe forward in fear. He catch her arm with one of his tentacles, or once caught her fully when she would have gone face-first to the forest floor; startling them both, she laughed at that, and said, “I should hope I never go blind, for even with the best of all creatures to lead my way, I am most terrible at being sightless.”
When the light of the town showed through the trunks, it served only to confuse her more, and after she caught up against three trees – alarming Octavius most terribly – she closed her eyes and let him lead her through the last of it.
He touched her cheek, said in his wave-shushes whisper, “From where shall we watch?”
Peering through the undergrowth which tangled at the forest edge, Lilly saw that the place was ramshackle, its houses built of sea-warped boards, the livelihood of the people made clear by the boats laid belly up beside their homes and the lines and fire pits set out for fish smoking. A bonfire cracked the air on the packed dirt of the town’s center, but even its inconstant light could not make the three dozen townsfolk gathered around it sinister. They were clearly poor and also clearly in high spirits; the women wore bits of ribbon pinned to their blouses and the men stepped about in buckled shoes.
They moved with purpose around a table laden here with a cheese wheel here and a great deal of fish there. The viands were interspersed with a great deal of woven wreaths and flower circlets, which made them seem a little less scanty.
Here the branches obscured her vision; but if they were to creep far from the woods, they would risk discovery. Certainly it would not suit to put their backs to the ocean, for though Octavius would then escape with ease, she had not yet tested how far her strength extended in the water. Over it all there hunched the husk of the church – or what was not, perhaps, a holy place at all, for it made no sense for a place of community to be situated outside the bounds of ordered society. It could be a madman’s lonely blasphemy; this dark impression was furthered by the fact that the bonfire’s light did not reach it.
“This way.” She tapped his temple, pointed to indicate that they would skirt along the edge of the forest. “If someone sees me, wait a moment. They will be confused, I think, and I won’t be in danger.”
Octavius asked, “Why would you be?”
She was already some strides away; whispered, “Let’s talk about it later.” In the dark, skulking around a strange community – it was not the time to speak of the violence in human nature.
She made more noise than Octavius, who moved so smoothly that he brushed aside the foliage rather than breaking through it as she did; the fear when her foot came down on a stick with a snap of particular loudness was delicious-terrible, a sensation that ebbed as she realized that the townsfolk were too occupied in their laughter and preparation to note little noises in the forest margin. With some disappointment she noted that they spoke the same language as she, and further did not have an accent any different from those in the town which lay a short ride from the chateau.
They reached the foot of the building just as the music began; an accordion and bock and she knew not what else. This masked her stuttered laugh, part-ways between amusement and disappointment, to find that this grand church or madman’s steeple was in fact half illusion, for it was placed on a tumble of stones that formed quite the regular shape. The building itself was a wooden lighthouse listing somewhat to the side, its sides spattered by gull dung.
“Well.” Octavius arched his tentacle that she might use it as a step up to reach the ladder that hung down from the elevated door. “Was it better as a shadow at a distance?”
“I find that it is best as a perch.” She glanced over her shoulder, checking that the townsfolk did not show awareness of them. They were entirely too occupied dancing in a manner that she found impressive in terms of vigor, though no more devilish – if not less – than the foot-tangling complications of a waltz. Well, perhaps they were getting warmed up. Testing the slats, for she was not overly certain of this building’s integrity, she scrambled up to the top. It smelled of birds and faintly of old fires, though the pit at its center seemed unused. “There must be something worth hearing about this,” she said, “for once it was needful and now it is not, and change makes for interest.”
Octavius did not respond because he had not followed her up.
Horrified, caught by the thought of her friend shot down by silent and terrible weapons such as fairy darts, she rushed to the edge of the lighthouse, throwing her weight precariously against its slender hand rail, and looked down into the dark with the expectation that she would see the remains of her friend leaking seablood and ichor.
Octavius had knotted himself most thoroughly around the rungs of the ladder, each limb curled around this part or that, his malleable body flattened against the building. Voice small, he said, “I have never been this high up.”
Thinking of the first time when she had gone to deep enough water that her feet could no longer touch the bottom, she made a noise of sympathy and reached her hand down, though it was more reflex and sentiment than help. “I could come back down. We could watch from—”
A cacophony of shout and bellows and various half-human noises went up from the crowd, but it was for the purpose of welcoming a barrel of ale being rolled out from a cellar.
Octavius lay the tip of one of his limbs across her palm; placing just pressure enough that she could feel the tension of it in her muscles, he slid his way up to the tower top, where he promptly spread himself across the uneven boards, clutching what solidity there was to be had. “Look,” he said, “they are most thoroughly roused. Perhaps the scantiness begins now?”
No, it became clear; but the barrel was tapped. By the motion of the moon, not much time passed before the dancing grew uncoordinated and the music considerably more dissonant. Unless the tribute was to joyful inelegance, Lilly did not think any particular propitiations were occurring down below. She clutched her knees and leaned against Octavius, trying to read his mood; she could not recall him ever being so motionless. Considering this, she whispered, “Are you bored?”
“This behavior – it is further drunkenness?” He tilted himself as if to gain a different perspective on the events.
“Yes. There isn’t even a spot of debauchery.” Lilly did not know for certain what this would look like, but its use in conversation as a most severe and hysterical word indicated that its appearance would not be missed. “Your hearing is better than mine. Are there goats bleating somewhere near? Perhaps the sacrifices come later.”
“I’m afraid not.” In a brighter tone, he said, “Sacrifices or no, it is a fair night that is spent in your company. What of the future? Since you have never before ventured out into the dark, then you have never seen the ghost ship. She comes close to the shore when the wind blows a certain way.”
“If it is a dingy it will be worth having seen in your company. And if she is truly a ship, I will read her name and tell you her history.” She took to her feet without care, for surely when the carousers looked up to their lighthouse, they would dismiss any movement as the effect on the eyes of too much dancing and drink. “Perhaps it is best to leave these people to their celebration. Octavius, will it take swimming to see your ghosts?”
“Well, if you wish to see the light of the captain’s red eyes—”
Lilly grinned, and going ahead of him to the ladder asked, “How soon?”
It took some months, but there came a time when Octavius brought her to a jetty where the water licked as high as her knees, most thoroughly destroying her skirt; she did not care, for the ship that moved through the water without creating a wake was the Hellbent, a name she thought a fancy of her father’s. She clutched at her friend with excitement and told him about the princess and the pirate’s dog and the book that would not be drowned — the one that had been placed in the hands of the figurehead so that the ship remained afloat despite the cannonball holes in her belly.
When she returned in the predawn to the chateau, she buried her salt-stiff clothes like a murderer disposing of his victim. When the dark circles beneath her eyes were exclaimed over, she attributed them to nightmares. At this her mother raised a brow, but her father declared his desire to check her knowledge of geography, and for the day he kept her in his study. While he went about the various paper work of his business, he questioned her on trading routes, profitable goods, the customs of different folk.
She did not wish to make rote answers to an examination; the experience that began as a joke about drunk fishermen and a misidentified lighthouse and ended with his tale come alive — it trembled on her tongue with a desire to be told. Not making a habit of foolishness, she kept silent, and knew that the impulse would fade when she returned to Octavius and planned for future nights.