Science Fiction & Fantasy

Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2017

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Fiction

So Sharp That Blood Must Flow

In the end, the water goes black with the witch’s blood.

Before this happens, the little mermaid understands that a deal is a deal, a bargain a bargain, and there can’t be reneging. But this isn’t reneging, she tells herself as she sinks down, down, down into water so black that in truth it would be difficult to discern witch’s blood within it even had a hundred witches been slaughtered in its depths.

She is not sea foam. That was the first lie.

She is also not alive. That was truth.

Being not alive, she has no need to breathe. This is terribly convenient, given what she needs to do next.

• • • •

Surrounded by a hundred crystal lanterns, a prince dances with his princess. This is iconic, archetypal; many of the people in the assembly sense this on some level and take pleasure in its even perfection. This is the ending of all the stories they have ever been told as children, all the stories they have ever told their children, all the stories their children will tell. The prince marries his princess and they dance and are blissfully happy.

She watches them from the parapet, her eyes burning and her feet cut to ribbons by invisible knives.

This was not her ending. And she sees no reason why she should take it gracefully.

The water is dark and deep below her, and she arcs down into it, her gown fluttering around her. She takes particular care to hit the water at such an angle as to break her neck, and so she sinks before she can dissolve on the little waves.

She dies with purpose. This is a truth she makes.

• • • •

If she were sea foam, she thinks—and perhaps this is after and perhaps it is before or perhaps it is both things simultaneously—she could become the rain and patter down onto his windowpanes, trickle down the glass and watch him inside in his bright warmth. Or in a storm she could come to him riding, or walking, or anywhere unsheltered, and cut down through the air to strike his cheeks. She could fling herself at him and run down his body like sweat, down his face like tears.

She aches with it. It’s worse than the knives ever were. The witch never told her that the knives on which she danced would be the lesser pain.

Did she know? She must have. Witches know all the secrets of love; it’s what gives them the power to bargain with all its points and angles and gemstone facets.

If she were sea foam. But she is not. Before, she wants it. After, she wonders at what possessed her, but even in the cold heart of the water she still knows.

• • • •

It takes her a long time to sink, a long time for the deep currents to carry her. Sometimes she thinks she can still hear the music. It works its way into her ears like droppers of poison, and though the cold water denies her rictus, she feels her teeth clench and grind.

As tiny fish nibble on her legs and toes—she still has them, even now, and hates them more every passing second though the knives have at least allowed her a reprieve—she wonders about death, turns the fact of it over in her mind. She is dead, she’s sure of that much, but either the witch lied, and that is why she is not foam on the waves—or something else has happened.

Her spirit is not free. And has not passed away.

Perhaps this is what rage does.

She has never felt rage like this, all-consuming, like the coals of deep-sea volcanoes in the core of her breast. She wanted. She reached for. She did everything she should have done. And him.

Him.

But if she’s still here, there are other options.

• • • •

She whispers to the current. It still knows her, and carries her corpse to where she wants to be.

It sets her gently down at the mouth of the sea witch’s cavern and there she comes to rest against the rocks, the waving fronds of posidonia caressing her limbs. She waits.

“Why have you come back to me?” All at once, without any stirring of the water at her coming, the witch is looming over her, the rags of her twelve tails like surf-beaten kelp, the thin strands of her hair like ancient seaweed. Her eyes are like the coals that burn in the mermaid’s heart. “You should be foam on the waves, daughter.”

By the witch’s magic, the mermaid knows she’ll be heard, the voice of that coal as it burns higher and more violent. I’m no daughter of yours.

“No. At that, not. So, then.” The witch reaches down and lifts the mermaid under the arms, clasps her cold body close to hers, which is hot for a host of dark and unnatural reasons. “This tale has ended badly for you.”

You meant it to.

“I meant to exact a price. I would in any case. You must know how these things work. I don’t make the rules.”

The witch glides backward through the water, back into her cavern, carrying the little mermaid with her. It is an embrace, close and dangerous, not intending comfort, not intending any good, but the mermaid has suffered and is dead and is now not afraid of anything. She has spent some of her time of sinking in wondering what might happen to her now, whether the witch might cut her into pieces and use her disparate parts for her magics, whether she might be skinned and used as a bag or a drifting blanket, whether her muscles and fat might be peeled away and eaten raw, her blood spilling down the witch’s chin and floating like red gauze in the little currents.

But now she doesn’t think those things will happen. Pressed to the witch’s bare, sagging breasts, she can sense the direction of movements. She can see way ahead with her blank, dead eyes.

The witch lays her down in a bed of kelp. The bones of whales hang from the cavern’s ceiling and make a soft clunk sound when the shifting water brings them into contact with each other. The water itself smells of blood, crushed plants, decay, dark things. The blood might draw sharks, but the rest keeps them away. Keeps everything away but the desperate.

And the dead.

The witch floats above her, arms loose at her sides.

I want to make a deal.

The witch cocks her head on one side. This close, the mermaid sees that tiny, pale shrimp are crawling through the strands of her hair, picking over her scalp. “Another? The way this one has ended? Be serious with me, girl. What could you offer me? And what would you want?”

You know.

The witch is silent for a time. Her fingers wander over the mermaid’s body. Perhaps she is learning humanity. Perhaps she has never touched a human woman.

“It would be difficult,” she says at last. “It would require much. Heavy magic. Dense and drawn from the core of the world, through the fire towers in the deepest of deeps. And that still leaves open the question of what you could give me in trade. What would be worth so much effort and such a cost to me.”

The little mermaid has had an answer for this ready since her body hit the water. She wishes she could smile.

There is one thing. And against all possibility, the corners of her mouth twitch.

• • • •

Life and strength flow back into the mermaid both together, a great rush like a wave crashing on the shore of her heart.

Her body wrenches itself upward, a great heave, her chest twisting in on itself with the lungs she no longer has. Her legs are bound and blended, her feet splay and stretch into fins. She opens her mouth wide in a scream with no voice to make it heard.

The witch watches her in silence. She was pale before; now her skin is almost translucent. She is exactly the color of the shrimp that infest her hair. She looks as if she’s trying to smile but can’t, as if she’s taken a little of the mermaid’s death into herself, because of course she has.

Death always has to go somewhere.

But that leaves the rest of it. The death the mermaid has promised.

The witch places the silver blade into the mermaid’s hand. Two seconds later its point is buried in the witch’s breast.

This was not part of the deal, not the promised death in trade. But the witch doesn’t look particularly shocked as she dies.

The little mermaid sits in the center of the black-gauze witch’s blood. It flows into her gills. She opens her mouth and tastes its old metal and rotten wood. What she promised the witch, what she’s offered in exchange—she’s done offering. Done exchanging.

This is all for her.

• • • •

She can hear the music of the prince’s ship as she nears the surface.

It’s music to dance to, and for a moment she stops just beneath the surface, head cocked, listening. She danced once, danced on the blades of knives and never bled, never screamed, and it had not just been that she had no voice. Love silenced her, terrible love, and she only had eyes for him as he laid his hands on her and spun her across the floor. Alone she had danced for his delight, her eyes beseeching him. She had believed he saw and answered her in the same kind. She had believed that he had entered the cloak of silence that covered her. That when his lips touched hers he had shared in it all.

Now she listens, cold as the water around her.

She breaks the surface. The knife is very heavy in her hand.

The ship is strung with fairylights, bathed in starlight. On the deck she can see bodies turning, turning. She can’t see the prince or his precious princess, but she can feel him there. Whether or not he meant to, he did share himself with her—if, as she now knows, not his better part. Not the part he’s given now.

She stabs the blade into the wood of the ship’s side and begins to climb.

• • • •

She knows they won’t see her, not at first. They had never seen her, not even him, and now will be no different, though she’s a thing of legend, of fairytale, as much as the prince and his princess. She’s not a thing of this fairytale, has no place here, and so will be unseen. She is supposed to be dead. To them, she is.

She can make use of this.

She pulls herself onto the deck behind a table laden with food. Her gills should make this difficult but some part of her remembers, some part of her unable to shed that form just as she can’t yet shed all of her death, so the air she pulls into her is harsh, sharp, a little like the knives that used to torment her. Her tail is strong and she uses it to push herself across the deck, behind the guests, behind the men in their fine suits of clothing and the ladies in their rich gowns. Behind the musicians with their strings and pipes and delicate drums.

And there, in the center of the gathering, him and her.

The mermaid closes her hand on the edge of the shear’s blade and bleeds. Because what’s a little more blood?

The prince and his princess turn around each other, spinning and laughing, voices high and clear over the music. The mermaid, in spite of herself, briefly loses herself in watching them. They are so lovely in light that dances as they do, fire and stars, and for an instant—a traitorous instant—she wants this again. Wishes. Dreams. Because it might, it might, have been worth the pain.

She lets out a sharp hiss.

All at once, the prince and his princess stop, standing in the center of the circle, gaze to gaze, hand in hand, breathless and flushed and so clearly happy.

This is the last scene of the fairytale, the point at which it ends, the book closes, the light goes out and all the good little children snuggle into their covers and drift to sleep on waves of sea foam.

The little mermaid slaps her tail against the deck and leaps.

There’s silence. She can hear it. The world itself gone frozen and still, and all eyes on her. Her hands hit the prince squarely in the chest, one hand over his heart, and the shock on his face gives her pleasure as keen as any blade that has ever touched her.

From somewhere in the crowd, a scream. The prince himself is opening his mouth to do the same. The little mermaid opens her own in mimicry of him, and before he can utter a sound she plunges her head down and sinks her teeth into his throat.

He convulses under her. His choked-off scream comes out as a gurgle as her teeth dig in and in; hot blood floods her mouth, flesh giving under the force of her bite, and the prince twists, trying to get away, and this is all the help she needs as she whips her head to the side and tears out his throat, meat and voice sweet together on her tongue.

She swallows. The prince lies there, twitching, drowning in his own blood.

Voiceless.

Now the screams, a chorus of them, women and men alike, and the sweetest scream of his princess, but the little mermaid barely hears any of this over the sound of her own laughter, hard and high and like all the songs she used to sing to him unheard beneath the waves. She eats his scream, the blood running down her chin, and as her death flows into the gaping hole in him, his life burns hot in her belly.

Why, he’s mouthing. Silent and already half dead. Why.

She lowers herself against him and kisses him once, painting his mouth with his own blood, smiling against him, and now understanding that this is a kind of joy he would have never given her willingly. Now there are running feet on the deck, the pounding of fleeing and panicked people, the shouts of the few guards he’s brought with him on what should have been a voyage to celebrate life and love. Over the din of all of these things she opens her mouth and speaks to him for the first time.

“Fair’s fair,” she crows. “Fair is so very fair, and I’ll spare you the knives you’d dance on, my love, my love.”

She’s singing as she begins to cut off his legs with the blade. It is very sharp. The witch gave it magic. He can’t scream, of course, as his blood pools on the deck and drips through the slats, but she can feel his cries echoing in her own throat and she turns them into music. To this music, she thinks, she’d dance on knives.

She’d dance and she’d laugh, her teeth glistening like rubies in her mouth.

• • • •

No one touches her. No one comes near her. She takes the prince’s legs in each hand and leaves the knife buried in his heart. She moves to the railing, and before she leaps into the dark she glances back at his princess, still standing at the edge of the crowd, pale as the witch with tears streaming down her face.

Her story has not ended well.

The little mermaid regards her dispassionately, though really, she bears her no malice—the princess has, of course, been allowed to live. In another story the little mermaid knows that it might have been herself. It might have been anyone.

She gives her chin an imperious tilt. The one thing she would never have cared about being was royalty.

“Make your own deals,” she says. And lets herself fall.

She slices into the water, a limb in each hand. She lifts the legs to her mouth and kisses each, on the sole of the foot, where the knives had always hurt her most.

And she lets them go.

As she plunges down into the fathoms below, she doesn’t look back. The prince’s legs float to the surface and bubble, dissolve into sea foam on the waves, and are soon lost and nothing at all.

She allows herself a second to float, light above her and deepest darkness below.

This is a crossroads, a turning-away-forever. But there isn’t any going back; that was the deal she made, and she can make her own deals and her own truths, make them solid and real as her flesh will now always be.

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Sunny Moraine

Sunny Moraine

Sunny Moraine’s short fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Nightmare, and Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History, among other places. They are also responsible for the novels Line and Orbit (cowritten with Lisa Soem) and the Casting the Bones trilogy, as well as A Brief History of the Future: collected essays. In addition to authoring, Sunny is a doctoral candidate in sociology and a sometimes college instructor; that last may or may not have been a good move on the part of their department. They unfortunately live just outside Washington DC in a creepy house with two cats and a very long-suffering husband. They can be found at sunnymoraine.com.