Youll open your mouth and inhale the sea, with your lungs burning from the salt until they burst. My aunts voice was distraught as she shoved the earthenware flask at me. It sloshed, heavy with the promise of death.
I averted my face, refusing to look at her.
I just want to spare you that last breath.
I turned my back to her again, unfamiliar finery tangling about my calves. Rather than stepping in front of me, she grabbed my hand and pushed the bottle into my unresisting fingers. They curled around the weight, five traitors to my resolve.
I will not drink it. My voice was fainter than I would have liked.
Moisture ran down her cheeks; I could not tell if it was sea-spray or tears that collected in the lines of her face. Ah, Daneo, I heard her whisper, as she placed her hands on my shoulders. My sea child. You always were so willful. Already she referred to me in the past tense, making an epitaph of her words.
Damp lips brushed my cheek before she withdrew. I heard the sound of her shoes grinding the coarse sand finer as she hurried across the thin crescent of beach. My face was turned toward the advancing dawn, already tinting the watery horizon the palest of golds. When the sun cleared the horizon, he would come, and I would drown.
My aunt spoke nothing but the truth; I was willful and impulsive, tolerated but not well-liked. If that had not been my nature, some other young woman would be standing in my place, awaiting death. Perhaps, if her family was kind, she would have waited with the too-sweet taste of poison in her mouth.
To hear my aunt tell it, wildness ran in my blood; my mother had been as recalcitrant as I. It had been her idea to join my father at his reef-nets and deep-traps while great with child. He had indulged her fools fancy. Even now, I wonder if he had time to regret that decision when the storm swept in from the north. The wind and waves carried him away, but washed my mother back to shore.
She died birthing me hours after they found her; her heart burst during labor from all the sea-salt she had swallowed. Somehow I survived, fighting my cousins for milk at my aunts breast. She named me Daneo, but I earned the nickname sea child. Sometimes it was used with affection; more often with frustration. Despite beatings, I remained stubborn, intractable as the tide, slipping away from lessons and chores to play at the edge of the sea.
That was why I stood here alone, now, waiting for the sunrise and my death. My fingers curled more tightly about the flask as I remembered...
It had stormed the night before and the pounding of lightning and surf against the rocks of the cliff echoed the beat of my heart. I pressed against the latched shutters, listening to the storm rage until I was forcibly pried away and put to bed. In the morning, I crept from the house and darted down the village streets, a tangle-haired urchin with sand between my toes.
A ragged line of sea wrack marked the sand like a scar. Bright orange seaweed tangled about the bodies of jellyfish and bits of driftwood. Detritus trailed down toward the waves, to be reclaimed by the sea that had tossed it away so carelessly. My focus was on this area of potential treasures, not the tide pools that pocked the rocky edges of the beach.
I had run halfway across the beach before I noticed that I was not alone. Another child squatted near the sea wrack, poking at it with a sharp-ended stick. He was my size, with dark hair and pale skin, wearing only a loincloth. I sidled closer, ignoring the evanescent glinting of pebbles, colors paling as they dried. He paid no attention, absorbed in the torment of a large starfish that clung desperately to an air-filled plant bladder as if it were a rock wall.
I acted without thinking, running forward and pushing him to the sand. The gills on either side of his neck fell open, exposing their red velvet underlining, as I pried the starfish off its perch. Angrily, I hurled it back toward the ocean. It fell into the retreating front of a shallow ripple and disappeared.
Its tormentor was not so easily dispatched, however. Before I could do anything more, I was shoved to the sand. The two of us rolled around, kicking and scrabbling at each other, acting on murderous childish impulse. I managed to hook two fingers into a tender gill-slit, and pulled at it just as his webbed fingers found my hair. Both of us howled at the same instant, but my voice was overpowered by his. He sounded like a flock of terns: high and whistling and plaintive...
That was how the they found us, twelve years ago to the day, locked in painful impasse. How was I to know he was the prince of the territories under the sea?
The sun continued its slow crawl past the horizon, gilding the bead-work on my dress as it ascended. The tide began to retreat. By the terms of the treaty that had bound our peoples for the last dozen years, he must come alone to claim me. The dowry had already been paid; I stood alone on the beach in solitary splendor as living proof.
Each year at the neap tide they came bearing coins from the deep and beautiful shells. I never saw him again; my aunt locked me into the house when they came. It was too late for this to do any good, but it made her feel better to keep me closeted when they came with their tridents of stone and their armor made of mollusk plating.
Our trading ships had sailed unmolested for twelve years on the strength of this betrothal, where before, one of every three had been sunk by storms or serpents. Or his people, who jealously guarded the the water, their territory, and regarded our shipping routes as trespass. I remembered all too well the pinch of hunger, visible in all our faces. I remembered shivering against the sea wind in the winters... and then the sudden surfeit of clothing and prosperity. My cousins faces filled out; my aunt no longer had to skimp to pay for firewood.
It would all be for nothing if he were to find my body on the beach, already cooling. I weighed the flask in my hand and then gauged the horizon. A small voice in my head whispered temptation: if I were to drink, it would be best to do so now. The consequences of my act would not affect me. Let the ships sink and the village starve. I would be dead.
The sun had leapt above the sea while I wrestled with temptation. A dark object broke the surface of the waves, moving steadily toward the shore. He was here.
Water rolled from his shoulders, pouring from his hair and down his back, dripping from his loincloth as he strode forward. The waves washed his footprints away half-formed. Child-soft features had sharpened into adulthood; only the color of his skin and hair were as I remembered them. His gaze fell on me, and something that I could not decipher flickered across his face.
His voice was deep and soft, a murmurous bass that was hard to distinguish from the sounds of the sea. You are willing to abide by the terms of the treaty?
My chin lifted, the gesture one that I could not control. I would not be here if I was not. My voice was sharper than I had intended. So much for the vaguely held idea of graceful sacrifice, of submitting with soft words to the fate intended for me. My gaze slid past his sharp-edged features, fixing on the sea. My hand cramped as it gripped the small flask that seemed heavier by the moment.
You understand what it means? He did not flicker so much as an eyelash at the tone of my voice. The trident at his back was peace-tied, sharp points capped with barnacle shells. More slowly, as if speaking to a small child, That you will be my bride? He shifted his weight from foot to foot. His shadow swayed on the sand.
Im ready, I said, blinking rapidly. Seizing my skirts, I strode toward the sea.
He did not follow, staring after me with eyes the pale color of water under cloudy skies.
Come on, I challenged. What are you waiting for?
He did not shift so much as a toe-length in any direction. Where are you going?
For the first time since he had begun to speak, I met his gaze. There was perplexity on his face; he was looking at me as if I had lost my wits.
To the sea, I snapped, feeling my face heat up. I am to be your bride, and a bride forsakes her family to live in her husbands house. That was the understanding; that was the reason the village council did not dispute the ambassadors choice of bride. One life drowned was a small price to pay for prosperity and peace, and I was an orphan, after all. Not one of their daughters.
He spaced the words out carefully, eyes widening with emphasis. Once more he spoke as slowly as if he were speaking to a half-wit. You cannot live under the waves.
I could feel the color of my face deepening in hue. I know that! A strand of seaweed was cool and slick under my left heel. The water nibbled at my toes, its touch delicate.
Gills snapped open on both sides of his neck and air wheezed through them. His expression was incredulous. You mean to die! It was as if the thought had only now occurred to him. He straightened, looking past me at the sea, spitting a word that sounded like a curse: Land-dwellers... His tone became more awkward as he added, I did not mean you. You do not understand, but you are... brave.
I cant understand what youre not explaining. I gentled my voice deliberately. Perhaps he was less sure of himself than I was. For the thousandth time, I wondered if he had a name. For the first time, I wondered if this was as hard for him as it was for me.
Only the royal blood can leave the sea and survive. His hair was drying in the sunlight; salt glinted on black strands, clumped together by residual moisture. The stories say the ability was gained by mixing our blood with yours. Gills flipped shut again, sealing firmly against his neck. It weakens.
Mixing your blood with... I heard my voice crack; my gaze dropped to his loincloth. He wore no knife. His trident was peace-tied. He could not mean to literally shed my blood unless he did so with his teeth.
He misunderstood my glance. It was his turn to flush, pale rose color creeping up his neck. You were not meant to die, but to bear my children. To be my wife, in honor.
The feel of my tongue drying out warned me that my mouth was hanging open. I had been prepared to die. Was I prepared to marry instead? To bear children? To lie down with a stranger whose name I did not even know? The flask in my hand felt heavier than ever as I took an involuntary step backward, ankle-deep in the water.
Now he stepped forward and asked again, Do you understand? His eyes locked with mine. I fancied I could see the fate of the treaty hanging within that pale gaze, waiting on my answer.
Why me? The question escaped from my lips, plaintive. The waves tugged a little harder at my dress, pulling its hem this way and that.
Now he smiled, the expression unexpected. Because you were willing to defend a smaller life against a larger ones aggression. He rubbed a webbed hand over the corner of his gill-slits. Perhaps he still remembered the tug of determined child-fingers against sensitive flesh. At least, that is why I was told you were picked for me.
He hesitated, and then asked a question that sounded just as plaintive as my own, Do you have a name?
Picked for him, he said. He knew as little about me as I knew about him. My cramped fingers uncurled; I dropped the flask into the water. It swept away in a swirl of sand and tide-pull.
Daneo, I told him. My name is Daneo.