One woman will travel to the stars and beyond to save her beloved in Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, a lyrical space opera from author Aimee Ogden that reimagines The Little Mermaid—available February 23rd from Tordotcom Publishing. Read an excerpt below!
Gene-edited human clans have scattered throughout the galaxy, adapting themselves to environments as severe as the desert and the sea. Atuale, the daughter of a Sea-Clan lord, sparked a war by choosing her land-dwelling love and rejecting her place among her people. Now her husband and his clan are dying of a virulent plague, and Atuale’s sole hope for finding a cure is to travel off-planet. The one person she can turn to for help is the black-market mercenary known as the World Witch—and Atuale’s former lover. Time, politics, bureaucracy, and her own conflicted desires stand between Atuale and the hope for her adopted clan.
Atuale leaves without saying goodbye.
Saareval sleeps with his eyes half-closed. She lays a hand lightly on his chest, one more time, to gauge its hitching rise and fall. No better than the day before; no worse either. When she lifts her hand, two of his scales come away clinging to her palm. They fall onto the tectonic ridges of the bedsheet, gray at the growth edge and angry red in the middle—so very different from the cool clay color of her own. She scrapes them into a tiny glass vial and adds it to the pouch strapped around her waist, where it clinks hopefully against more like it: miniature amphorae of blood and lymph.
She closes her hand into a fist to keep herself from reaching out to touch his face. She longs to wake him, and dares not. He would not stop her from what she plans to do—could not, in the ashes of this all-consuming fever. But if he should open his eyes now, and only look at her with the fear that he might die without her to soothe his slide beneath those forever-waves… Atuale is a strong woman, but strength is no barrier to a bone-knife of guilty grief slipped beneath the breastbone. “Teluu is gone,” she whispers, too softly to wake him. The others will let him know, if he swims up to lucidity later today. Telling him herself is the threadbare excuse she dressed herself in to justify lingering for a last moment here beside him.
Teluu was the first of the household to take ill. Ten days, scarcely a moment more, and then gone. So fast, so quiet, as if she hadn’t wished to burden the sisterhouse any longer. Saareval is younger than her, stronger too, one of the last to take ill. How long can he hold out, before this fever drags him under its dark surface too?None of the Vo are young enough, strong enough, to fight the plague forever.
It is not youth or strength that has protected Atuale from illness.
She slips out of their pairdwelling and through his family’s sisterhouse unnoticed, though the sun casts long shadows through the open windows. Most of his siblings and cousins have taken with the fever now too. Unlike Saareval, they might have tried to stop her, but they lie upon their own sickbeds. Atuale wraps her arm protectively around the case at her waist anyway. A few still-healthy cousins, exhausted from caring for the afflicted, do not stir from their sleep in the common room and the courtyard as Atuale ghosts by on bare, silent feet.Toward a livable future. Toward the bleached-coral bones of her past.
The plague-stricken town is as silent as the sisterhouse. Not even the tall grass hung in open windows rustles, for want of wind. A greasy miasma of illness clings to the air, and Atuale takes short, shallow breaths. She walks from the tightly packed sisterhouses of the town center to where the buildings spread farther out from one an.other and lean gardens can sprawl between one door the next. Until finally the whole town is at her back and she stands at the top of the cliff-stairs.
At the bottom, dizzyingly far below, the sea hammers the shore. That stone landing seems a galaxy and more away. Atuale starts walking anyway. At first she tries counting the steps, to numb the pain of the worry that presses behind her eyes. But she loses count time and again. Little clothing drapes her, in the Vo way: only a wide sash that covers her genitals and a shawl to shade her smooth-scaled head and shoulders. Enough protection from the heat for the high-ceilinged sisterhouses, but out here the sun pours its warmth into each and every scale. The steps she takes downward sap the strength from her legs but don’t seem to bring her any closer to sea level—only farther from Saareval.
Halfway down, she slips on an eroded step and tumbles down three more. Tears clot her vision as she rubs her bruised knees. She picks over her legs, looking for cuts. Looking for infected, color-bled scales. There are none, of course. Guilt flushes her chest, only to be scrubbed quickly away by determination and relief.
Water from her tin cools the parched salt-tang in her throat and she lies back against the steps, her ribs scrap.ing the stone with each shuddering breath. Halfway down, but the towering cliff has already long since cut her off from any last sights of the silica-sparkling roofs of Keita Vo; even the Observatory has fallen behind the craggy wall. Atuale turns her face away from the empty, stone-split sky.
Below there is only open ocean for as far as she can see. And on such a cloudless, flung-open day as this one, she can see very far indeed. Atuale balances between two lives, this one and the last, and finds the position more precarious than she would have liked.
She pushes herself up to a sit, then a stand. Her knees and ankles ache; her shoulders too. This is a small price to pay. She would climb down a staircase as wide as the world is round, if it meant saving Saareval’s life. She would walk the whole way on the points of knives. There will be time to rest when she has secured his safety. Perhaps if she is pleasant, if she remembers the silver-smooth tongue of the Greatclan Lord’s daughter that once she spoke so fluently, she may be able to negotiate a morsel of food, a brief rest of her weary legs before she mounts the cliff-stairs again.
Or perhaps it would be best to be home sooner. Her throat tightens against tears she has no time to shed. In.stead she lets her head fall forward under its own weight to stare down at the green-touched waves that break be.low. If she leaned forward just a little farther, she would fall.
She does not think the sea would welcome her return.
Instead she frowns very hard at the horizon, toward the north. She thinks she can see the Khelesh station just there, the tip of the great turret gun disrupting the smooth curve of the world. Pointed upward: a reminder from the Greatclan Lord to the land-dwellers of Keita Vo of the power and presence of the undersea kingdom. A second turret gun is barely visible, a twisted hulk that mostly sleeps beneath the surface now. Atuale remembers singing the blessing-song for its commission. She remembers her father, the Greatclan Lord, smearing his blood on the steelica base to infuse it with his own strength and power. A waste of time, that he should grandstand for the benefit of the quiet, insular Vo. He has struggled enough over the past twenty years to cling to his own tattered collection of clans. But then, the Great-clan Lord has always prized appearance over actuality.
Breath comes almost evenly now. Her legs have stopped shaking, too—or at least she must pretend that it is so. She puts one hand on her belly and pulls in a rib-scraping breath, and she struggles back up to her feet. It was easier passing upward, all those years ago. But she was younger then, and she wasn’t bearing the burden of a return voyage. She sets her foot on the next stone down, and the one after that. Each one is like a step backward in time, toward when she was young and naïve, with scarcely an adult’s worth of fatpads to guard her against the worst of the winter’s currents. Age does not fall away from her as she moves downward, though, and her feet and knees continue to throb as she draws closer and closer to the surface of the water, to the seaclans she once belonged to. Her scales cling fast. Her throat does not split open to reveal long-shuttered gills. Gene-eater technology is stronger than the pull of the past.
Saareval, her footfalls whisper against the rock. Her heart thunders a matching rhythm. Saareval, Saareval. Perhaps he will thank her for these efforts on his behalf. Perhaps he will not. She didn’t stop to ask his opinion one way or the other. It’s all right if he decides to hate her, afterward. One has to be alive, to hate.
At low tide, the World-Witch’s house peeks through the shifting waters that slash at the steep cliffs: three pearl-glass domes, bubbling up from the bottom of the shallow sea. Since Atuale was a girl—since they both were, she and the Witch together—the World-Witch has conjured technological trinkets and toys from across the scattered humanholds of the universe. Do you need nanofilters to scrub Vo mining runoff from the precious water where your children are crèched? The Witch can magic some up. Do you desire to break your heart upon the newest Keilishk songpearls? You need only ask the Witch.
Do you want gene-eaters to reshape yourself, body and soul, to mold you for life on land instead of water? The Witch, of course, can arrange such a thing. For a price.
When the cliffside path brings Atuale near enough to spot them, the reflection off the curved surfaces prevents her from seeing whether the Witch is at home. If she isn’t, if this has been for nothing— Atuale severs the strand of this possibility before it can tie knots in her heart. The Witch must be there, and so, she will be.
But here is a new worry to catch Atuale in its nets, as she draws closer to the bottom of the path: she doesn’t know how to get inside.
There will be a sea-door, and she can guess at where it should lie. She has never been to this place of the Witch’s; they knew each other before, in the court of the Great-clan Lord. Before the Witch was a Witch, before she was anything but Atuale’s dearest companion, Yanja. But sea-door or not, Atuale isn’t sure she should dare an underwater search. She has made herself a creature of earth and air, no longer a child of the water. The sea is no more for.giving a parent than Atuale’s father ever was.
The tide is drawing in, and by the time Atuale reaches the smooth-swept landing at the bottom of the stairs, she can see nothing but the clear, empty pearlglass at the top of the domes. “Hello!” she cries, as if the Witch inside could hear her over the bellow of the waves. She throws a pebble at the dome, which glances off unanswered. She sits down and crosses her legs into a breathing-prayer pose, numbers the gods, and begs each one for a moment’s mercy. When she stands again, her legs are tingling. The dome remains still and silent.
She paces the landing, and wonders why she never interrogated this moment, this arrival, in her heart until now. Because her heart has been overfull of other worries, perhaps. Because she has been occupied with the ending of this story rather than its beginning.
Or because she is in some ways still the same foolish, headstrong child as ever, and that child never had to wonder how to enter a sea-dwelling with land-scaled skin and sealed-up gills.
The sea grows stormcloud-dark with evening’s approach, and its spray dances tauntingly around her ankles. Her belly churns nauseously to match the push and pull of the waves. She walks to the edge, turns, and presses all the way back to touch the cliff face. Her shoulders are as strong as they ever were, though her legs are wearied from the day’s exertion. She cups her hands, turns them back and forth to look them over; she flexes her feet.
Impossible to forget a birthright, however long you turn your back to it.
She offers the sea-wind her sash and shawl and it tears them away from her, as if denying her the right to change her mind now. Without the cushion of her clothes, she cinches her case of precious samples tighter about her waist. She licks her lips and tastes salt. She could change her mind anyway, walk back up naked and exposed to burning sunlight and blasting wind.
Her hand leaves the cliff. She runs lightly over the wet rock and leaps out as far as she can toward the domes. Cold water slams over her head before she remembers to steal one last breath from the air.
She never had to do that, before.
Salt stings her eyes when she forces them open underwater. With both arms she reaches and pulls. Some.where, somewhere beneath the Witch’s home there has to be a waterlock. She only has to find it—
Her own weight pulls her downward, parallel to the dome but not toward it. She was never so dense before. Light shatters on the dome’s surface and these sharp splinters pierce her vision as it goes black about the edges. Her arms, pulling upward, pulling forward, are strong. But the ocean is stronger.
So Saareval will die, after all. So Atuale will, too. Her one regret, now, is that they did not die together. But they never would have, would they? They have spent twenty years lining up the ragged edges of their differences and never yet found a match but one. But one, and that one is love, and Atuale clings to it as the ocean drinks her down into its darkness.
Excerpted from Sun-Daughters, Sea-Daughters, copyright © 2021 by Aimee Ogden.