Science Fiction & Fantasy

Beren & Luthien by J.R.R. Tolkien

Advertisement

Fiction

The Mermaid and the Mortal Thing

It is rare to glimpse a mermaid, rarer still a whole pod building sandcastles.

The travelers on the road from Palmary to Amberhorn paused upon a sea-cliff, staring down at the peculiar sight. Lovely figures, the shades of emerald and coral and turquoise, splashed about a sandy hollow licked by the rising tide. They sang and gestured, and sand sculpted itself in deference to their voices, a tower for a trill, rising steps for a staccato scale, a battlement for a crescendo. Like songs in a medley, the sandcastles blended together in a riot of styles, turrets to minarets to onion domes, and what the pair of wayfarers could see filled an arc of fifty yards. More was hidden by the cliffs.

“Let’s go closer,” said the poet Gaunt, her eyes widening.

“Why not?” mused the thief Bone, his eyes narrowing. “I have lived too long.”

Still, before approaching the beach, he made sure his daggers were handy, and he stopped his ears with wax.

***

Between Palmary and Amberhorn ran a golden coast—not gold in the hard lucrative sense (Imago Bone had long since checked), but the soft spill of light upon dry grassland, tawny sandstone cliffs, and beaches of beer-colored sand. All this gold was pillowed by blue: a sky that looked rich enough to dive into, a sea that appeared crystalline enough to skate upon.

Despite all this metaphorical loot, the glorious landscape lay deserted. A lonely stone road, cracked remnant of Amberhorn’s imperial past, straggled its way amid boulders and hills and fissures. True desert, a limb of the mighty Sandboil, glowed yellow-white to the east. Offering little provender for humankind, this was a land for skirting . . . or for those who fed upon the skirters.

As if to underscore the thought, the next turn of the downward path brought Bone a glimpse—just beyond the mermaids and up the coast—of a pirate ship.

He put his hand upon Gaunt’s shoulder, and drew her back toward the shelter of a sandstone wall. He pointed out the vessel.

Taking a swig from his water skin (already he missed the cool of Palmary’s shadows), he watched her as she watched the craft. He would have preferred the sight of Persimmon Gaunt any day. Of pale, sturdy, Swanisle stock, she was sun-browned by months in southern lands and further marked by the rose-and-spider-web tattoo upon her cheek, hidden and revealed and hidden by the wind-dance of auburn hair. A poet who wrote of graves and grue, she’d been popular among the elite of Palmary of the Towers—popular enough to live in cobwebbed, dusty independence. She’d been happy, but had traded all that for stony campsites and foot-blisters and hardtack.

For him. That was a wonder to rival Plasmstones and Mobius Rings, and even the bejeweled steam-powered war-coffin of Skizlok the Vampire. (He, Bone, would know).

“Do you know,” Gaunt said, “what that ship represents?”

“I do,” Bone said, drawing himself to his full height, for some words require gravity. A lean scarecrow of a man with a tangle of dark hair lately turning sandy from the sun, he knew others assumed him a rakish twenty, a slumming dandy perhaps, who’d seen too little of life to grant it full seriousness. A second glance, however, might reveal scars from fire and blade, one for each side of his face, and then his ninety-year-old eyes—lit with the gaze of one who’d seen too much of life to grant it full seriousness.

“That,” he said, leaning close to Gaunt, “is the flag of the Four Skulls Society.”

“Oh,” she said, putting her lips to one plugged ear. “I was referring to the ship. It is a trireme, Bone, a beautiful example.”

They peeked again around the cliff’s side.

They were both right. The ship flew a triangular black banner like a flicking tongue of smoke, displaying faces lacking tongues themselves, being eyeless, white, and grinning. The skulls portrayed were of a human, a goblin, a delven, and an arkendrake (with its usual jewels and precious metals gleaming amid the white). The Four Skulls Society was egalitarian as regarded both crews and victims.

And likewise with ships. The craft below the flag was indeed an old trireme—a vanishing breed, a hundred-and-twenty feet from bow-to-stern, with big, painted, bloodshot eyes on the upswept prow, and an abundance of oars jabbing from the hull like the legs of some seagoing centipede. Such ships had once commanded the winding coasts of the Spiral Sea, and the pitch-dark waters of the Midnight Sea, and brightened the waves below splendid Amberhorn, which linked them both. Those had been the last days of the gods-who-walked, oft-forgotten in this era of cogs and dhows and knarrs. This ship was like an ancient grandfather, dreaming by daylight of long-ago journeys. Bone wondered how old it might be, how long it could last.

Bone whistled. “I’m almost tempted to steal it,” he mused, “though I’m no sailor. But, of more immediate concern, what’s happening to the true sailors?”

For indeed there were rough men and mutable goblins and translucent delven on deck, all staring at the lovely, singing architects a stone’s throw to the south. Indeed, it appeared they were doing nothing else. Bone tapped the plugs in his ears, offered Gaunt the remaining lump of wax.

She shook her head. “Legends agree, a mermaid’s voice afflicts only males.”

“Perhaps. But just who is leading us on here, Gaunt?”

Gaunt laughed, waved a hand. “I am not like the pirates, Imago Bone. I am my own person. I am a poet, and was once a bard. How can I resist experiencing their song?”

“My point,” Bone muttered, but he stowed the wax where he could fetch it at need. He sighed. “We’ll approach to within a dagger-cast of the construction,” he said, as if he expected obedience, “and then withdraw. You’ve survived one confrontation with magic —”

“Which freed you from a curse.”

“Which freed me from a curse, for which I thank you, and will trust to your good judgment.”

“Thank you, O Lord and Master,” she said, with a mix of laughter and warning that reminded Bone he was nothing of the kind.

He grinned. “Let’s be off.”

They descended to the beach, the poet taking little leaps down the rough pathway, the city-bred thief treading carefully, suspicious yet of natural formations. They advanced across the strand, sand-fleas scattering before their stride, the ocean roaring and hissing beside. They stared at the mounting marvel ahead.

The mermaids’ sand-construct rivaled vast human mansions, looming beyond a moat that surged and rippled unnaturally. At times, the architects themselves appeared around the bend, oblivious, it seemed, to their watchers. Laughing, they splashed fish-tails and shook manes of human hair (albeit the shades of kelp and lilypads, starfish and seaweed), touching and kissing the sides of their redoubt. Sometimes they combed each others’ tresses, and their hair flashed like the inspiration for all humanity’s flower-beds and gardens. Their bare breasts were like the prototypes for every city’s dome, their nipples the models for every tower.

Bone swallowed and shifted right, less to hide himself than to escape the sight. He was, despite appearances, an old man. His youthful body he owed to twin death-curses that had thwarted each other, trapping him in an ageless, circumscribed existence, till Gaunt had helped him escape. Curse or no, he’d drunk deep of life and knew his vices and weaknesses, had approached his sophrosyne, as they said in Amberhorn. Knowing himself, he could abide restraint. He could resist the sea-things’ charms, for a time. And yet, it would have been easier were his body not so absurdly young. There were times when his responses left him as flushed and baffled as any adolescent.

He preferred not to explain all this to Persimmon Gaunt. Their love was fresh and fragile, and he feared she’d dismiss him as an old satyr. Indeed, he feared many things. He was like a mouse dragged, blinking, into the light, for love of a cat.

The sweet voices of the mermaids called again, melting away his thoughts. This time, despite the wax, their words sang clear.

Die now,

Mortal things.

Taste the doom

That water brings.

The song was so lush, Bone thought, one could almost take the offer as a gift. Even Gaunt trembled at its beauty. But it was not directed at them.

“Stop!” rose a voice, and then another: “Please!”

Bone snapped his gaze here and there, but saw no one. Gaunt spoke into his ear. “The voices come from within the structure. The mermaids must be tormenting pirates within. We must do something.”

“Surely they can torment pirates without us.”

Gaunt glared, and now Bone regretted this rash excursion. He’d seen that look before, when she’d scolded angels of death. “Did you not hear the horror in those cries?” she demanded.

“I have earplugs. I miss the finer points —”

“Whatever they have done, surely they deserve better than slaughter.”

“I believe,” Bone said, “thieves of the sea are termed ‘enemies of humanity.’”

“Except by those who hire them,” Gaunt countered. “And are you not a thief?”

“Of the land! Very different.”

“Besides, these could be prisoners of the pirates. I’m sure I heard a woman’s voice.”

“There are female pirates —”

A man’s voice shouted, more clearly, “Slaughterdark’s blood! Kill me if you must, but spare her! I did not lead her astray, though I loved her from afar!”

And a woman’s: “I made my choice willingly! I will die for love!”

The chorus of liquid voices returned.

You broke our trust,

Became a mortal thing.

Let water fill your chest —

This the mermaids sing.

“Well, that settles it,” said Bone.

“Yes,” Gaunt said.

“Some fool mermaid’s opted to become human, breaking taboo.”

“Yes.”

“Obviously, this is an internal matter. Let’s leave them to it.”

Gaunt glared. “As I left you to your curse? As I recall, I risked death twice over to break it.”

Bone flushed. “I would have advised you not to.”

Gaunt shook her head—whether at Bone’s words or his whole existence, he was unsure. “I must do what I can,” she said. “Perhaps I can plead for the lovers. Do as you will, Imago Bone.” She advanced across the sand.

So ends a promising love affair, Bone thought. I confess, my nagging urge toward self-preservation makes me hard to endure. But endure I will, at least.

Gaunt strode toward the surf, where she might gain access to the sand-construct. Now, watching her every brave curve, Bone felt little temptation from the sultry killers of the sea. The sea itself surged and hissed, as though whispering old truths he was too stupid to understand: old. Stupid. Do as you will.

Bone spat and followed Gaunt. “Is this some test of my loyalty?” he called. “Dangle tempting creatures before me, see how I react? There are less hazardous ways, Gaunt. Exotic dance halls! Red-light districts . . .”

Yet the mermaids were now gone from the shore. Sea-foam surged into the moat around their structure, overflowing at times into a gateway flanked by sandy lighthouses ten feet tall, echoing those at Palmary and Archaeopolis. Within lay a scene that could tempt architects to madness. Bone beheld a fantasia of columned acropolises, soaring pagodas, many-bridged canals, ant-scaled hippodromes. It seemed that every great coastal city in the Spiral Sea, and many more besides, were represented. Most of the construction soared seven or eight feet high, guarding winding pathways: The sand-city also constituted a maze.

Gaunt stopped and turned. “You are here,” she said into his ear.

He shrugged. “Where else?”

At least if I die, he thought, as they stepped into the cityscape maze, I earned that much.

***

Tidewater lapped at their feet as they passed through the opening, following a channel that split in twain, curving beyond sight to right and left. The afternoon sun, though high still, cast plentiful shadows, and it was cool here in the shade of jumbled cities. Gaunt drifted back and let Bone try to navigate, for this was not his first professional essay of a labyrinth. He could not immediately sound the thing, however, and meanwhile the panicked voices of the pirate and the former mermaid edged toward hysteria.

“Have you no pity!” bellowed the pirate.

Man’s for devouring,

Not for loving.

We reflect

And misdirect.

They kiss their desire —

 and expire.

“I am no mere reflection and negation of man’s desire!” cried their contrary sister. “I will be myself. I will desire! The mortal thing I spied beyond the water, I will claim.”

Bone stopped. The voices and the architecture—some of which reminded him of the Palmary of his youth—left him reeling, as though teetering upon a lifetime of sand.

“Gaunt,” he said, drawing her close, “I’m not sure I’ll solve this in time. And breaking the walls will mire us.”

“Should we run?”

“Rarely a bad option. But I’m not suggesting it yet. You take the lead.”

“Me? I’m no thief.”

“You are a scholar, Persimmon,” Bone said, using her given name in a way that, by odd, unspoken agreement, he had rarely done. “There is something about this pattern of cities that nags . . . I’d thought it a whimsical tangle, but there is something . . . ”

“Yes . . .” she said, turning slowly. “The buildings hail from all five corners of the earth, but there’s a method . . . Age, Bone! Outside, I saw towers that rose only last year in Palmary and Swanisle. And some before us now have famously fallen. And so . . .” The rest of her musings were lost to his ears, as she led them in a new direction.

She was right. He should have guessed himself, for he’d seen nearly a century pass and had watched constructions come and go. He saw the tower of his first theft in Palmary, feeling a pang as for a lost friend. And then he spotted buildings from storybooks (the rare sort he consulted about forgotten treasures). There was the lost museum of Basilia beside that towering lighthouse, the Panoptes. There was Amberhorn’s Bridge of Old Remembrance, that once bound the Continent of a Thousand Peninsulas to the Continent of the Young Sun.

Gaunt led them past these and to the right, past the delven’s Mountbranch, that vast temple both grown and hewn; and past Junkenfen of the goblins with its fleet of marsh-bound ships; and volcanic Brightcairn, beloved of dragons. Beside these works of the subtle folk, humankind’s contemporaneous structures were squat things of thatch, wood, clay, and mud. Yet these, too, were portrayed.

Surrendering all direction to Gaunt, Bone felt as one who tumbles into the past, and it was as though old cares and guilts slipped away, whirling behind like agitated sea-birds, squawking at him to remember, remember, but growing more distant by turns. The sand-structures now displayed prehistory, when humans dwelled in tents or caves, save for the mysterious masters of the lost continent Nobeca, with its spires like shells.

As if retracing his own timeline, Bone, known as the Thief with Two Deaths, recalled how Gaunt had lately dubbed him Thief with One Life. And should this new existence on the road be brutal and short . . . still, it was a new beginning. He felt old and gnarled, yet scrubbed clean, like the grotesque and beautiful driftwood he’d scrambled over as a boy on the Contrariwise Coast.

He was grinning at the thought, as they burst suddenly upon the labyrinth’s heart. His smile quickly faded.

The size of a sitting room, the hollow’s walls resembled immense cliffs, complete with concavities, bulges, striations. Far stranger, these cliffs were encrusted with immense fossil monstrosities—spindly, spiky things like nightmares or fragments of nightmares, the whole assembly or disassembly rearing and creeping and twisting around the wayfarers like a hallucination. Bone’s eyes tried to reconstruct one lost horror, then another, each contradictory creature more bizarre and compelling than the last.

By contrast the execution scene was far more human.

Six mermaids splashed about their victims. Bone knew stories of these beings, having grown up beside the sea. He knew the prevailing wisdom, that mermaids were given form by sailors’ desires. Thus they commonly took the shapes of voluptuous young women, though sometimes a male version manifested, and more rarely an inanimate object: a chest of gold, a royal scepter, a shimmering ship.

These were female, with wavy tresses dangling over angular, pouty faces and breasts so buoyant as to belong rightly only in an adolescent’s (or an Imago Bone’s) fantasies. They crowded within a ring of water, fed by the channels flowing through the maze. They surrounded a man and a woman, both waist-deep in wet sand.

“Aha!” shouted the man. “At last, my crew . . . Oh.” He was bald, black, and bearded, hailing perhaps from the realm of Ma’at where pyramids flank the savannah, though he wore an Amberhornish tunic and cloak, secured with a glass pin resembling an eye framed in solar rays. Beneath his Eldshoren tricorne hat, his gaze looked resigned, but unbowed. (Admittedly, sealed in sand, he could not bow at all.)

“Welcome, whoever! Free us, and Captain Dawnglass of the Sea-Glare will reward you well!”

“Yes!” cried the woman, sand-brown, though with a green streak in her hair that betrayed her origins. She was stunning, yet her nakedness revealed features her sisters lacked: a mole beside the nose, freckles crowding her cheeks, a pimple beside one shoulder, hair beneath the armpits, the puffy eyes of sleeplessness, sweat. Her curves bore the slightest bit of droop. Beside the rebel mermaid, the others seemed cynically-painted, fever-dreamed, half-glimpsed. “Bring me to the Sea-Glare! I will win my love!”

“You heard the lady,” Captain Dawnglass said.

A trifle smug, thought Bone, for a condemned man.

“It seems you hold these two against their will,” Gaunt addressed the mermaids. “I insist you free them.”

Before Bone could add the appropriate amount of groveling and begging, the mermaids laughed and chorused:

Freedom is ruin,

And love’s a lie.

Late or soon,

All mortals die.

“Yes!” cried the rebel mermaid. “But, being deathless and loveless, my sisters, you know not the value of that ruin, this lie. I, Irilee the mortal, say this!”

“I, Dawnglass the-generous-to-his-friends, concur!” said the pirate.

“I, Bone the scared witless, think we are outnumbered,” muttered the thief. His earplugs misled him; he hadn’t meant to be heard, but Gaunt replied, “Three-to-one only. And they are unarmed.”

The mermaids giggled at that, spinning and splashing in their glee. They sang a melody without words.

Sand swallowed Gaunt and Bone’s legs to the knees. Ocean water surged into the chamber and crashed around them. They sank a little further. Nearby, Irilee and Dawnglass struggled upward for breath.

The water receded, or else hissed into the sand.

You face odds

Not one to three,

But like to all the droplets

Of the sea.

“Ah!” sighed Dawnglass. “There is that.”

Gaunt turned to Bone with a look of apology. Satisfying as it was, Bone could not abide seeing her at a loss.

“And yet,” he said, removing his earplugs (for he was well-caught) and feigning a cocky air, “this is not my first encounter with distributed elemental intelligences. Why, I recall the panic of the Greedcoins absorbing all the Palmarian treasury, and that stink over the Middenmind that terrorized Thumbbottom . . . ”

“Had you an inkling,” Gaunt snapped, “you might have spoken up.”

“In truth, I was uncertain. To think the very sea would rise against us!”

“Indeed,” said the pirate. “It offends a mariner’s pride. I, too, underestimated their power.”

“We are not the whole sea,” Irilee said. “We . . . they . . .  are like a sheen upon the water. They command seawater, and that which bears seawater, like this sand, which they have reshaped to mock all mortal achievement. Or your blood, which hearkens to their songs.”

“Then I was lured here,” Gaunt said, shaking her head.

“Sexual craving’s but one form of longing,” Irilee said, nodding. “My kin are most accustomed to luring men, but women too may respond to their voices, and not just those who desire their own sex.”

“Song is in your blood, Gaunt,” Bone said. “As is water, of course . . .”

Gaunt was watching him closely. He knew she could tell he was thinking. Perhaps she thought it a rare and wondrous event.

He began working free his water skin. He noted Gaunt reaching for hers. Meeting his gaze she intoned:

Ruins are buildings caressed by wind,

Skeletons friends whom time undressed,

Logs the trees that gravity loved,

And wrecks the ships that ocean kissed.

Which did nothing for Bone’s mood, but did cover the sounds of two water skins emptying into the sand. The mermaids giggled at the bleakness of Gaunt’s poem, splashing and applauding.

Bone felt a diminishing of the grip upon him. He nodded to Gaunt. He counted under his breath, One, Two, Three . . .

The pair scrambled free. Before the mermaids could sing, Bone threw his dagger. Gaunt threw her water skin.

His dagger hit true, and slid clean through a mermaid’s throat. She seemed disoriented, but otherwise unharmed.

Gaunt’s fresh water, however, caused her target to shriek and hiss and dissolve.

“Yes,” Bone muttered, “she is the smart one.” He dove for his original target, shaking his own water skin as he rolled through her. Her fish-tail scattered into droplets and the rest of her crashed, now seemingly as fragile as an ice-sculpture, down into the moat.

Captain Dawnglass was a quick one. He began spitting, slowly freeing his hands. After a moment of staring, Irilee did likewise.

Bone rushed to help them. “Irilee!” he gasped. “How do we fight?”

Irilee’s four remaining sisters tittered. Gaunt splashed one with the last of her water; there came a scream, and the chorus was reduced to three. Yet their laughter continued, and they began to sing. The moat frothed.

Irilee, digging furiously, said, “They draw their solidity from human longing. Stop wanting them, and they will weaken!”

Gaunt shouted, “You men! Focus on your lovers, not these temptresses!”

Captain Dawnglass paused in his exertions to kiss Irilee. She did not resist, but seemed to Bone not to encourage him overmuch. Not my problem, however, he thought. He stared at Gaunt, the poet who’d freed him to explore the world anew. Alas, the splashing faux-flesh of the mermaids kept drawing his gaze, and their siren call caught his ears.

“Shut your eyes!” Gaunt demanded, grabbing his wrist. “Stay near me. I will sing!” He obeyed.

The mermaids ceased whatever doom-song they’d intended, the better to scoff:

You will sing?

O mortal thing?

Gaunt did. (To the tune of a popular tavern song.)

O say, can you see

That peacock named Bone!

Who so gallantly steals

When the rich folk are not home!

Her voice was lusty, rich, a bit over-enthusiastic, a touch off-key, beer to the mermaids’ wine. He drank it in.

Behind him, Captain Dawnglass took up the slack:

Oh, what do you do with a drunken pirate,

What do you do with a drunken pirate,

What do you do with a drunken pirate,

Early in the morning?

Gaunt responded,

Leave ‘im with the tab and steal his trireme,

Leave ‘im with the tab and steal his trireme,

Leave ‘im with the tab and steal his trireme,

Early in the morning! 

There was human laughter in the hollow of forgotten monsters. Dawnglass called out, “Lead on! We are free now, and coming!”

As Bone stumbled forward, he heard the mermaids’ chorus fragmenting.

“Simple mirth! Common love!”

“We cannot sustain ourselves on such things!”

“Come, sisters, for the Sea-Glare’s crew can yet empower us!”

And there sounded a rushing and roiling as the three corporeal mermaids flowed out of the hollow.

Bone dared open his eyes. The sea-beings were gone, save for the ones still dissolving into the little moat. “That sounds ominous.”

“They are right,” Irilee said, staring at Gaunt and Bone. “Yet you were right as well . . . your songs and your . . . lusts . . . dismayed them. For the desire that sustains them is a bitter, desperate thing. The desire that sustains you, I see, is very different. True companionship and good cheer torment them.”

“Follow my lead,” Gaunt told them all. This time Bone followed with no reservations.

When they reached the sea, the surf was a wild, thundering thing, pounding against the sand, and there were pirates abandoning ship to frolic with the three mermaids dancing in the waves. Gaunt and Irilee conferred.

“Avert your eyes, Bone and Dawnglass!” ordered Gaunt. “Stand in the water, backs to the sea. Irilee, help me with our weapon.”

As the men obeyed, water surging about their legs, the two women hastily constructed a sand-sculpture. Swift and sketchy though it was, it soon revealed itself as the shell of a trireme. And though Irilee appeared to have lost the power to sculpt with voice alone, still she retained her brethren’s knack for sand-craft, for the little Sea-Glare came alive with improbably clear details, mast, oars, eyes. She molded the little ship like an ardent lover.

Captain Dawnglass bellowed, “You men! Remember who you are! What your home is!” He sang,

Come all ye foul pirates that plunder the sea,

to me way hay, slow the hags down!

Cover your ears but sing ‘long with me!

Give me your time, and slow the hags down!

I’m a deep-water sailor from southern Ma’at,

to me way hay, slow the hags down!

I gave up my rivers for a three-cornered hat.

Give me your time, and slow the hags down! 

Irilee sang,

I’m a mermaid turned mortal, and this do I dare,

to me way hay, and slow the hags down!

I’ll take ship aboard the mighty Sea-Glare!

Give me your time, and slow the hags down! 

Gaunt sang,

I’m a funereal poet who spins tales of grief,

to me way hay, and slow the hags down!

And I’ve given my heart to an odd lanky thief!

Give me your time, and slow the hags down! 

There was a pause.

I’m a thief not a pirate, and not good at this,

to me way hay, and slow the hags down!

So I’ll finish my song with a powerful 

He strode out of the foam and bear-hugged Gaunt, kissed her deep.

There was a cheer from the Sea-Glare, and a chorus of :

Give me your time, and slow the hags down!

The mermaids’ song was shredded, and again their individual voices arose.

“Camaraderie!”

“Friendship!”

“Marriage!”

“Ugh!”

And then:

With pathetic good cheer,

You’ve defiled this spot.

We flee marriage’s stink —

this beach we now blot. 

Bone dared turn, and saw the mermaids dissolve into hissing, multi-colored spray that danced like quicksilver on a slope, out toward the afternoon sun. In their wake, there rose a groaning wave, and it surged into the shore with the noise and scale of a herd of elephants.

“Oh —” Bone began.

The wave tore him from Gaunt and spun him like a rag in an overturned wash-bucket. At last the air and sunlight found him (it was none of his doing), and he wrapped his arm around a driftwood log, a spindly, old thing like a pale, tentacled beast. It floated, at least, and with its help, so did he.

He paddled to Gaunt and together they discovered Irilee and Dawnglass bobbing and blinking in the sun. Dawnglass’s hat was gone, and the sandy Sea-Glare was lost along with all the mermaids’ sculptures; but the true craft approached, and pirates hauled the foursome into the ship’s boat.

“Marriage . . .” Bone began, as he and Gaunt regained their balance.

She blinked at him. “How foolish! But if the idea repelled the mermaids, let us not be overloud yet about the truth.”

“You are wise, O wife. Ha ha!” He let certain, unexpected thoughts drop like sand scattered through water. Among them: Perhaps marriage is just mortality shared. But then, perhaps neither he nor Gaunt really cared to be mortal. He laughed again. Goblin rowers, glurping in excitement, brought pirates and wayfarers and mermaid to the trireme. Up close, Sea-Glare was a creaking, aging thing, its wood a rich array of colors, legacy of endless repairs. Bone recalled the old philosopher’s conundrum: If you replace all the wood of a vessel, is it the same craft? He wondered then, if you replace all the particulars of a man’s life, is he the same man? What, then, of self-knowledge?

It seemed the only answer available was for the man to board the ship that life offered. So he did.

“Comrades!” Dawnglass bellowed, once all the crew were recovered. “These are my guests! The wayfarers Gaunt and Bone shall have the best hammocks below. And the lovely Irilee . . . she shall share my cabin.” He kissed her hand, and looked up.

He frowned.

Irilee was gazing in rapture, but not at him.

She pulled away, skipped in wonder about the deck, at last embracing the mast. She reminded Bone oddly of the siren-lured mariner in the old tale, strapped to such a place with ears unplugged.

“Ah, Sea-Glare,” she said. “A wondrous name, for a wondrous craft. Long have I loved thee, mortal thing. As I have ever since I beheld thee above me, dancing upon the waves.”

As the pirates gaped, Gaunt said, “I see there are others who love triremes . . .”

Bone looked to Captain Dawnglass and saw a narrowing of the gaze and a murderous glint. There was a lonely passion in the corsair’s face, of a sort that might have sealed the mermaids’ triumph, had it only manifested sooner.

Bone put a hand upon the pirate’s shoulder. “Good Captain, you are hardly the first man to lose a would-be lover to . . . a good friend.”

Dawnglass turned to Bone, his face relaying muted dispatches from a war within his skull. “I can . . . hardly fault her taste,” he said at last, staring again at Irilee. Then he grinned through the pain, bellowing, “Man the oars! Weigh anchor! I would be rid of this place! We are off to the Contrariwise Coast and rich targets. I shall sleep below-decks for now, in honor of our new . . . navigator?”

Irilee beamed and nodded.

“Some pirates are wise,” Gaunt said.

Dawnglass snorted and waved her off. As he strode to his duties, he said under his breath, “Ah well; who knows, perhaps one day Sea-Glare will consent to share . . .”

To Bone, Gaunt added, “Some thieves are wise as well. I’ll listen better to your warnings, Bone.”

“Of course,” Bone said, embracing Gaunt. “We are married.”

“Mm.”

As seamen rushed to their tasks, Bone and Gaunt leaned against the railing near the ship’s glaring eyes, and against each other. The once-mermaid scrambled up the mast. As the sun baked him to a briny dryness, Bone thought anew how lovers dragged people out of their worlds, hauled them somewhere bigger and scarier and brighter, like ship-rats brought blinking into the sun. Though he wondered idly if Irilee, so passionate and so human, would look up one evening and fall in love with a star. Sophrosyne to you, he thought, taking Gaunt’s hand upon the ancient rail, if so.

The band of mortal things, borne by a mortal thing, chased the falling sun.

© 2008 by Chris Willrich.
Originally published in Flashing Swords.
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Enjoyed this story? Get the rest of this issue in convenient ebook format!

Chris Willrich

Chris WillrichChris Willrich lives with his family in the otherworldly environs of Silicon Valley, where he works as a children’s librarian. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Black Gate, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Flashing Swords, and The Mythic Circle. You can find him irregularly on his blog at Goblins in the Library and on Twitter @WillrichChris.