Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Ash-Girl and the Salmon Prince, Part II

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. Of course. When we left our tale, Eleanor—happily married to a salmon, the Prince of All Fishes—had gone back to visit her family on the shore. Under the duress of her cruel mother’s manipulations, she had overstayed the three days and three nights she had promised her husband. When she awoke on the morning of the fourth day, it seemed to her that her time beneath the sea had been only some dream or fantasy, a tidbit of some story she had heard, to be forgotten in the morning.

Some months passed, and every day the ash-girl went to work in her mother’s house, and every night sleeping in the ashes of the fireplace she dreamed about a palace beneath the sea and a husband that loved and missed her. Eventually, some of the servants took pity on her and let her sleep on their floor, but her mother called it wasteful and that put an end to that small comfort.

Each day while she was there, it seemed a greater storm blew in through the Brec, until at last the weather was so bad that the wind blew between the stones of their snug little cottage, and they could barely set foot outside for fear of the wild ice and waves.

“Can you believe these storms blowing in through the Brec?” said her mother one night at dinner. “This little cottage doesn’t seem so snug after all, against this weather. Just goes to show, you can’t rely on anyone except yourself.”

“Yes dear,” said her father. “I can’t even fish for the storms, you know.”

“And the money’s almost gone—what are we going to do?”

“I don’t know, dear.”

“You know, isn’t there that story about a fisherman just like you, who caught a magic fish and married his daughter to it?”

“I have heard that, yes, but—”

“But nothing dear. Just like the fisherman in the story, you should go out and catch a magic fish and make it change this weather. While you’re at it, you should ask for a proper castle with a full retinue. This cottage is altogether insufficient.”

“But both our daughters are married.”

“Oh, not our beautiful daughters, of course not, no, could you even imagine? I mean our other daughter, you know, the ash-girl. Of course, she’s ugly and stupid, with nothing but obedience to recommend her. Just tell the fish that she’s beautiful. It’s a fish—what does it know a beautiful woman from an ugly one?”

The fisherman began to speak, but his wife cut him off.

“But that does remind me, we should ask for proper marriages for our daughters. Not the leeches that they’re married to right now. No, they should be married to proper princes from the Vale Traverse, with their own estates and incomes. And ask for more money for ourselves, as well. If our daughters are married to princes, we after all must keep up appearances, mustn’t we?”

“Just as you say, my wife,” said the fisherman after a silence.

The next morning, he woke his daughter, the ash-girl, before dawn, to take her to the shore and marry her to a magic fish.

“It’s time to go,” he said quietly, so as not to wake her mother, and once she had gathered her things took her out into the storm. She did not cry this time, for whatever reason, even when the storm’s ice stung her face. Perhaps she had been dreaming of her husband and their home beneath the waves. Perhaps, in her heart, she remembered his love for her. Or perhaps she simply felt that a cold death in the sea was better than the life she lived in her mother’s snug little cottage. In truth, I do not know. Whatever she felt that morning, looking out at her father casting his nets upon the gray and storm-torn sea, is not told in this story, at least, not as I have ever heard it.

Her father struggled to lift up his water-logged nets, and she came out to help him to shoulder them and cast them into the waves. As soon as the nets were on the water, he called out to the fish he knew from the story:

Oh, lord of the sea
Hearken to me.
My wife wants a wish.
Please answer my plea.

A castle and riches
Are what she requires.
How can a husband
Refuse her desires?

Oh, hearken to me
Great lord of the sea.
Bless us with fortune
by magic decree.

No sooner had he spoken the words than out from the sea leapt the salmon prince. As soon as he laid eyes on Eleanor, even wearing his skin and bones and dress, he recognized her instantly. He turned to the fisherman in wrath. “Villain!” he cried. “Kidnapper! You have stolen my wife from me, the prince of all fishes! Did you truly think that there would be no consequences?”

But for her part, as soon as Eleanor glimpsed his red-and-rainbow scales, his princely bearing, the majestic arc of his leap through the air, she remembered everything about him, his palace, and their life beneath the sea, remembered it all with such force that it drove the breath from her lungs and the tears from her eyes. Without waiting for her father to say anything, she stripped off her dress and her skin and her bones and leapt into the water in the pure form of her soul.

“Please,” she said, when she was once more in the water, “do not punish my father for these wrongs. If my parents have kept me overlong, it is only because they did not understand about the magic. It is only, surely, because they loved me too much to let me go.”

“My wife, my beloved Eleanor, do you know how much I’ve missed you, knowing that you were so close to me on shore, and yet had forgotten me entirely? In every night of these long months I have tossed and turned and suffered, and I can only imagine how much worse it was for you. Be he your father or be he a stranger, this man has wronged me all the same, and such should pay the price of it.”

“Please, my husband, spare him. If not for his sake, then for mine! If not for my sake, then for the sake of our reunion!” Eleanor pleaded with her husband.

“Very well, my wife. I cannot stand to see you at all unhappy, not the least at this one moment. I shall spare him, then, for your sake, and for the sake of our reunion.” And, with that, they swam together into the depths of the sea, leaving the fisherman and his net on the shore behind.

• • • •

Some days later, after Eleanor had returned to her palace-beneath-the-sea, after she and her husband had settled into the old routines, she spoke to him in the privacy of their personal chambers.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“What is it, beloved?”

“It’s simply that, despite all you’ve done for them, my family is still struggling so much. Yes, they have a snug little cottage, and yes, my sisters had their dowries, but the dowries are both already spent, and the cottage in the end is much too small. They couldn’t even spare a bed for me!”

“I don’t think,” began the fish.

“And if they had a proper castle to live in, with a proper retinue and my sisters married to proper princes with lands to call their own, then perhaps that would be enough for them, at least, to be at peace. It is not too much to ask, is it? I do not mean to presume upon your generosity.”

“My dearest wife,” said the fish. “It is not any manner of presumption. For my magic to grant that wish, why, it is as simple as a flick of my fins. But I must tell you, after how they treated you, after how they kept you from me—” He stopped, knowing how much she hated yelling. “I cannot say that I have much charity towards them.”

“Oh, dearest,” said Eleanor. “Of course! Of course! How you must see them, how you must imagine them? But you must know—you must—it is only because they love me so much. It must be! For what am I but their own daughter who they bore and who they raised? It is simply the straitened circumstances in which they find themselves. Surely, if they had a castle and a retinue, if my sisters had princes for their husbands, surely then they would treat me as I wish they would.”

The fish did not agree with this, not at all. But he saw his wife’s pleading face, and felt his love for her swelling in his scaly chest, he could not manage to deny her plea. It was, after all, as simple as a flick of his fins. So he sighed, and wriggled a little, and said “It is done.”

Eleanor was overjoyed. She swam around him and covered his face in kisses. “Thank you, husband. I know you do not care for my family. But for my sake, at least, thank you a thousand times.”

“There is no need,” he said, although he was in truth quite pleased by her reaction. “We are husband and wife, are we not? What’s mine is yours, what’s yours is mine, for better or for worse.”

For some years after, they were happy together inside their palace-under-the-sea, with the salmon, who was in truth the prince of all fishes, governing and ruling, and his wife beside him, giving him no small part of comfort and advice. A human wife, she bore him great schools of salmon children that he could know and raise and adore in his own lifetime. With each brood born their happiness increased and their love for each other bloomed anew.

But, as the joys and salt waters of her home washed away the pain from her memories, Eleanor began to once more think of her family on the shore, in their stone castle with all its retinues. She began to swim up to the shore, to watch the comings and goings of their courtiers and armies, and she began to wish again that she might see them again, so close to her and yet so far removed. She imagined that they would greet her, and praise her for everything that she had done for them, and weep with happiness knowing that they had given her into a happy life and a happy marriage, with plentiful children and plentiful means to keep them.

Without her skin and her bones and her dress, though, how could she return to the shore to see them? But, even as she looked for them in every place (save for the room her husband kept aside for himself), she could not find them anywhere in the palace. At last she sought out her husband.

“Dearest husband,” she said. “Father of my beloved children. I have it in my heart to once more visit my family on the shore. But I cannot find my dress or my skin or my bones. I have looked in every place and I cannot find them. Could it be that you again put them in the single room that is kept aside for you?”

“Oh wife,” said her husband. “I shall not lie to you. It is true, that I have once more set your bones and skin and dress in the secret room that is set aside for me. I set them there because I was afraid—whether that they might meet some injury or that you might glimpse them and yearn once more for your family on the shore, I cannot rightly say.”

“Indeed it is so, my love,” said Eleanor. “But even without glimpsing my skin and bones, in my heart I still yearn to see my family on the shore. It has been years! Of course I still love them. Of course I now miss them.”

“Of course,” said the fish, keeping his countenance calm.

“So, if I might, beloved, beg only a few days of time away, to see them again, to feel once more the love of my human family.”

“Oh wife,” said the fish. “In truth I can only begin to understand you. I am a salmon—my parents died in the breeding of me; my brothers and sisters are but strangers to me still. My only inclination to return home is an inclination to my death. But, through you, through our beloved children, I see now the love that a family must have. If the same love binds you to your parents that binds us to our children, then perhaps I can begin to understand, although I still cannot fathom how cruel they have been to you. If it were our children, even the smallest of our fry, I could never treat them so.”

“Nonetheless,” he continued, “You are my wife and I trust you with my entire life. If you tell me you must visit your family, then you must visit your family. I will fetch out your dress and your skin and your bones for you. I only ask that you return to us before the night of the third day, lest all your nights beneath the sea, all the love of your husband and all the love of your children, seem to you only a story, an idle curiosity already forgotten.”

“Oh husband!” she cried. “Thank you for your lenience! I shall not forget our family, I promise, not even if a hundred years would pass.”

“Beloved wife,” said the fish. “Do not make a promise that you cannot keep. I only ask this: even if you should forget me, even if you should think I am only a dream or only a story, remember that I still love you.”

With that, he went into his particular room and fetched out her bones and her skin and her dress, and brought them with her to the shore beside her family’s castle.

“Three days,” he said as she left. “I love you.”

“Three days, I promise,” she replied.

• • • •

When Eleanor reached the gate of her family’s castle, she was stopped by the captain of the guard. “Halt!” he shouted. “Who goes?”

“It is me, Eleanor, daughter of the lord and lady of this place,” she said.

“Nonsense!” said the captain of the guard. “The daughters of this keep are fine ladies, with princes for husbands and retinues of knights and servants. What’s more, they are as beautiful as the day and night. You are a woman all alone, clearly simple and plain to look upon. How could you possibly be a daughter of our lady?”

“I am their youngest daughter,” said Eleanor. “Who she married to a magical salmon, the prince of all fishes. Surely, she must have mentioned me.”

“I quite doubt it,” said the captain. He wanted nothing more than to return to his wier game.

“Please,” said Eleanor, “if you would only go and tell the lady of this house that her daughter, who loves her and obeys her, has returned. If you would just do that for me, sir, I promise—”

She was so sorrowful and so desperate that the captain at last sighed. “Very well,” he said, and headed towards the main of the castle.

Eleanor stood outside the gate for hours, her skin twisting in the cold sea breeze, until one of the guards took pity on her and invited her into the guard house. “There’s not much of a fire,” he said. “But you’re welcome to share it, lady.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I shall tell my mother of your kindness.”

The guard blanched. “Oh, no need for that, lady. Just enjoy what little warmth we’ve got, and mind you don’t disturb the captain’s wier board.”

She passed a few more hours in the warmth of the guardhouse, through a change of shift, and then another, until at last her mother arrived, decked head to toe in gold and fineries.

“Here you are!” she said, when she saw her daughter. “Sitting here for hours idle, with every hearth in the castle filthy! What a worthless daughter you are! How ungrateful! You’ve been back for near a day and done nothing to account yourself.”

“Mother,” said Eleanor bowing, “I’m sorry.”

“That’s ‘my lady,’ to you, dear. After all, I am the lady of this place, am I not?”

“Of course, my lady.”

“Well, fine, then. No more of this chitting and chatting! We have no time to waste, not since I had to send your father away. Idle hands cost time and money. Get yourself to work!”

“But moth—my lady,” said Eleanor, correcting herself. “Your castle has so many retinues of servants. How is it that cleaning the hearths still falls to me, your daughter just now returned from her home beneath the sea.”

“Oh my dear,” said her mother. “Don’t call your home some dreary crag beneath the sea. This is your home, and always shall be. And, of course we have servants, but none of them clean the ashes half as well as you can. Truly, my dear, we all depend on you, however unreliable you be. Now, it’s quite late at night. You have to start your work, and I must sleep! Always more to do here. Always more to do.”

Eleanor worked the whole night through, and most of the next day besides, but the castle was so large, with so many hearths and so many ashes, and try as she might she could hardly keep them all clean. On the evening of the second day, exhausted, she sought out her mother and found her in the throne room.

“Oh moth—oh my lady,” said Eleanor, curtsying.

“Yes?” said her mother and then, when she looked up and saw that it was her plain daughter “Oh. It’s you. What do you want now?”

“I know that you would have me clean all the hearths of ashes,” said Eleanor. “And I know that no one can clean them like I can, because I love you, and because of course you love me, your daughter.”

“Get to the point,” said her mother.

“Uh, that is to say. There are just so many hearths in this castle, and so many ashes, and so many constantly in use. I cannot clean them all, at least not as well as I might. I was hoping you might spare one of your retinue to assist me with it, if only for half a day.”

Her mother laughed. “Oh dear. It’s quite out of the question.”

“But—” started Eleanor.

“And when did you start to answer back?” asked her mother. “It used to be that you at least had obedience to recommend you. Anyway, you are our little ash-girl. How could anyone but our ash-girl clean our ashes? It makes no sense.”

“My name is Eleanor now,” said Eleanor. “I know you must have just forgotten.”

“Eleanor!” shouted her mother. “What a ridiculous name for a plain and stupid thing like you! No, of course we can’t call you that. Your life beneath the sea has clearly spoiled you. Eleanor! What airs! And for such an ugly girl!”

“My—my husband gave me that name,” said the ash-girl, tears welling in her eyes.

“Your husband,” said her mother, “is a fish.”

Eleanor could make no reply to that.

“Now, if you’re quite done with your little . . . display,” said her mother. “I have important matters to attend to. Affairs of state, wars and treaties. Your sisters’ husbands have even called us into their war against each other! Quite beyond your capacity, of course.”

“Of course,” said Eleanor, although she had just last year negotiated a careful treaty between the Duke of the Cod and all the whelks.

• • • •

She worked as hard as she could, without even time to sleep in the ashes, but she still could not keep the hearths clean, and by the third day, she was entirely ready to leave. Not wanting to bother the lord and lady of the castle, she simply made her way to the front gate, only to find her mother waiting for her.

“Oh, my dear,” said Eleanor’s mother, “I see how terribly you must feel about me. I’m afraid that you have been nothing but loyal to us and we have used you terribly. It’s only that your sisters are struggling. You know, their husbands are princes from the Vale Traverse, so of course now they’re at a war against each other. It’s all very difficult for them, and so I’ve had no time for you. But, my dear, that is only because you are such a good and obedient daughter who has done so much for us.”

Eleanor did not know what to say. She began to cry, and her mother embraced her. “There there, my dear.”

“We are beset by so many troubles in our life. If only we had some of that wishing power, from beneath the sea, like in the stories about magic fish. Some true magic to call our own. Then we could resolve our difficulties, and then I would have time to show you how much I truly love you. Do you think you could fetch some for us? Your husband wouldn’t miss it, surely, and he wouldn’t need to know. That’s a good girl.”

Still crying, Eleanor tried to think. She thought about her husband beneath the sea, about the single room he kept aside for himself, about the source of all his magic. She was the lady of his palace, surely she could slip inside and take some fraction of his power for her parents. But hadn’t he said that, if she were to ever set foot in that room, everything would be undone? She looked up into the face of her mother, full of desperation and sincerity.

“Mother,” she said. “I can ask my husband for you. But I will not steal his magic.”

“Daughter,” said her mother. “I have misjudged you! I have thought that you were loyal, but I see now that you were only stupid. What do you owe your fish of a husband? You have given him everything, and gotten nothing in return. I am your mother; I’m the one who bore you to this earth; I have given you everything! And yet you will not even do this one thing for me. Ungrateful wretch! Guards, seize her! We’ll see how a night in the oubliette sorts her loyalties!”

“No!” said Eleanor, but the guards had already seized her. “Please! I need to go back tonight!”

“Sorry about this,” said the guard who had let her share his fire. “But the lady is not one to be crossed.”

In the darkness of the oubliette, even exhausted as she was, she remembered the last time when she had forgotten the fish, her husband, their life beneath the sea. Removed from the salt and water of the sea, the pain of it was all too real again. She was too miserable to sleep. Instead, she wept, and as the salt tears fell from her eyes they recalled to her the brine of her husband’s realm and she wept all the more anew.

She cupped her hands beneath her chin, catching her tears until they pooled into a brine of their own. Her heart breaking, she cried out to her husband.

Oh man of the sea,
hearken to me.
With love and with tears
I send you my plea

I pray you hear me,
I pray you forgive,
please know I’ll love you
As long as I live.

Oh hearken to me,
my man of the sea,
through my loving tears
I call unto thee.

No sooner had she finished her rhyme than her husband appeared before her, leaping up from the brine of her tears in the darkness of the oubliette. “Blackguards!” he cried. “Kidnappers!”

Eleanor embraced him with her human arms. “Oh, husband. I thought I would never see you again. I thought I would forget you.”

“Oh wife,” said her the fish. “Do not ask me again for their mercy. As for their trespasses against me, I am not a prideful fish. Those at least could be forgiven. But for their trespasses against you, my heart, my wife, my love. For their trespasses against their own daughter. No, those can not be forgiven, not even for your sake, not even with ten thousand tears.”

“I do not ask that you forgive them,” said Eleanor. “Though it grieves me to see my family come to harm. I only ask that you spare at least their lives, that I might hope that they will one day regret what they have done to you, that I might hope that they might one day come to love their daughter.”

“Very well,” said the fish. “It is already done.”

The fish was as good as his word. In the distance there came the sound of a great storm, and after that the swell of a great wave which crashed around the castle and swept the whole of it right out to sea alongside Eleanor and her husband.

• • • •

Some days after the storm had passed, after Eleanor had returned to her palace-beneath-the-sea, after she and her husband had settled into the old routines, she spoke to him in the privacy of their personal chambers.

“I’ve been thinking,” she said.

“What is it, beloved?”

“It is only,” she said. “That so much of my mistreatment was because my family had no magic of their own. And so, of course, they needed it from you. But perhaps, if my mother and my sisters were married to fish-princes of their own, with their own sea-magics, then we could all be equal, peers below the sea and peers above it. Then, perhaps, we could all be on better terms.”

“I do not think,” began the fish, but then stopped to think it through, even though his wife did not interrupt him.

“Actually,” he said after a time, “I wonder if you might be right, my wife. And it may solve our other problems. With our marriage, legends of human wives have only spread among my peoples. There are surely lords among the clams and fishes that might seek such an alliance, if not for the true love of a human wife, then to marry into the family of the salmon-prince, lord of the seas and lord of the streams. With such an alliance, we could unite the waters for a generation or for more.”

“Oh husband,” she cried, and embraced him.

“Yes then,” he said. “It is decided. I shall send the messages in the morning.”

• • • •

Weeks later, Eleanor’s family gathered on the shore, awaiting their new and magic bridegrooms. From the eastern waters of the Great Sweet Sea had come a beluga-king, resplendent with sword armor. From far to the south had come a pale-red shark of ancient lineage, proud of his name and with teeth like jeweled daggers. From far to the west, the depths of the endless sea, had come some vast and quiet creature, bearing a lantern in search of his true name.

Eleanor, clad again in her bones and skin and dress, spoke gently to her sisters, each in turn. “Here you go,” she said to her eldest sister, as beautiful as the day. “Your beluga-husband awaits you beneath the sea. But you cannot go in your dress: think of how it will tangle in the waves and drown you. Do not worry for your modesty. Your husband shall soon know you in your nakedness. Leave off your dress and step into the sea.”

Just as she was told, her eldest sister removed her dress. Eleanor then spoke to her next sister, as beautiful as the night, about her shark-husband. Her next sister likewise heeded her.

When Eleanor spoke to her mother, though, she scoffed and growled and made a great fuss about all of it, but in the end she removed her dress as well.

Next, Eleanor came again to her eldest sister. “Here you go,” she said. “Your beluga-husband awaits you beneath the sea. But you cannot go in your skin: think of how it will twist in the cold and freeze you. Do not worry for your modesty. Your husband will soon know you in your nakedness. Leave off your skin and step deeper into the sea.”

Just as she was told, her eldest sister removed her skin. Eleanor then spoke to her next sister about her shark-husband, and her next sister likewise heeded her.

When Eleanor spoke to her mother, though, she scoffed and growled and made a great fuss about all of it, but in the end she removed her skin as well.

Next, Eleanor came again to her eldest sister. “Here you go,” she said. “Your beluga-husband awaits you beneath the sea. But you cannot go in your bones: think of how the brine will crush and choke you. Do not worry for your modesty. Your husband will soon know you in your nakedness. Leave off your bones and swim freely in the sea in the shape of your own pure soul.”

Just as she was told, her eldest sister removed her bones and swam into the sea in the shape of her own pure soul. As soon as he saw the form of her soul, the beluga-king fell instantly in love with her. They danced and swam together in the surf, and then further into the sea, out into the deep waters, past the Brec, into the open ocean, where I am told that they became the mother and father of every dolphin, living many happy years together. For all I know, they live there still.

Eleanor then spoke to her next sister about her shark-husband, and just as she was told she removed her bones and swam into the sea in the shape of her own pure soul. As soon as he saw the form of her soul, pale-red shark fell instantly in love with her. They danced and swam together in the surf, then further into the sea, out into the deep waters, through the Vale Traverse and the seven oceans of the southland, to the warm rivers of the cities of gold, where I am told that they became the mother and father of every manatee, living many happy years together. For all I know, they live there still.

Last, Eleanor spoke to her mother. But when Eleanor told her to take off her bones, her mother stamped her feet. “I will not!” she shouted. “It is enough to be naked! It is enough to be skinless! How am I to do without even bones to hide my modesty?” I am told, though I do not know for certain, that she was afraid that if her lantern-husband saw even a glimpse of her true soul, he would surely see how wicked it was and revile her for it. So, instead, she leapt into the ocean, without her dress or skin, but still within her bones.

As soon as she fell beneath the water, though, she was transformed into the form of a crab, with no dress nor skin but bones all about. From there, she sank to the bottom of the Wessord, the deep waters, where she lived the rest of her days, scuttling this way and that, with her eyes always sideways, jealous of whoever was beside her.

As for Eleanor and her husband, the salmon prince, lord of the seas and lord of the streams, they returned to their palace beneath the sea, where they lived quite happily among their schools of children, and that she never again yearned for the light of the surface.

I am told, and I would believe it, that after many years, her husband invited her into his solitary room. Perhaps he realized that he had been wrong to doubt her. Perhaps, after all they had been through, he trusted her at last. Regardless of the reason, I cannot say for certain what secret she found there, what source of all her husband’s magic or anything else besides, for whatever she saw she was loyal to her death and never told another soul.

That is the story, the whole and the heart of it, just as it happened and just as it was told to me. If any man call me a liar, he has only himself to blame.

P H Lee

P H Lee. A close-up photograph of three white plum blossoms on a branch, with an out-of-focus brown-and-green background.

P H Lee lives on top of an old walnut tree, past a thicket of roses, down a dead end street at the edge of town. Their work has appeared in many venues including Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, and Uncanny Magazine. From time to time, they microwave and eat a frozen burrito at two in the morning, for no reason other than that they want to.

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky

Rachel Swirsky graduated from the Clarion West Writers Workshop in 2005, and holds an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop. Her short stories have been nominated for the Hugo Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the Locus Award among others. She’s also twice won the Nebula Award, once for her novella “The Lady Who Plucked Red Flowers beneath the Queen’s Window,” and again for her short story “If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love.” Her first collection, Through the Drowsy Dark, is available from Aqueduct Press; her second, How the World Became Quiet, came out from Subterranean Press in 2010. Visit her website, chat with her on Twitter, or support her on Patreon where she posts one new piece of fiction or poetry each month.