Dryden and Sylvie - Chapter Two

The next little while was not clear in Sylvie's memory, but when she was sure of things again, she was lying bandaged in a bath of proper salt water, not the silty nothingish stuff from wells and rivers she had been put into for weeks. There was a pillow between the edge of the bath and her neck; her hair hung over the side of the tub and someone was carefully picking out the knots. A slightly painful tug in the process had brought her fully awake. She lay very still, wondering where she could be. The background hum told her she was on board an airship. It looked like a stateroom. There were a lot of bookshelves around the walls, and a rather lumpily-made bed with a large lamp hanging over it.

'Awake now? I was worried about you for a while,' said a deep voice behind her. For a moment it was unfamiliar, and then she matched it up to the name Dryden Fassa. She did not want to answer. He had bought her. Even if he had been kind, he had still bought her.

'I hope you're not thinking of doing anything really energetic like blinking,' he went on, imperturbably, 'because you're probably pretty weak after all that bleeding. Lucky there was a barber-surgeon just opposite your old master's. He kept saying "I've never done this on a mermaid." Still, he seemed to do a competent job of bandaging you. He put a couple of stitches in the bigger gashes, but apparently they're a kind that will dissolve as they heal up, so nothing to worry about there. I've just got to keep you clean and comfortable, and feed you up, and we'll see a much happier Sylvie in a few days.' He finished breaking up the knots in the section of hair he was working on, and combed it smooth. 'I'm spending more time on your hair than I do on mine.'

Sylvie did not speak, and he did not seem to require her to. She grew increasingly irritated at his familiarity. What did he want to be playing with her hair for? What was the point of all this? Some men liked funny things, and she was beginning to worry. When he had untangled all her hair, he got up from behind her and walked around to take another look at her.

'Much too thin,' he said, shaking his head.

'Much too tall,' Sylvie replied. She had had enough of people talking about how she looked. Someone else could see how they liked it for once.

Dryden's mouth opened slightly, as if he wanted to say something back but had no idea what. His expression cleared to a broad smile. 'Oh, yes,' he said. 'Much too tall. Any other criticisms you'd like to make? Be brutally frank.'

'Your face is bristly,' she said. 'You have ugly boots on. You wear windows on your face and that bow on your hair looks frankly stupid.'

Dryden put his hand to the scarf fastening his high ponytail. 'I don't think it's that bad. You can have the rest, but I like my bandanna.' He smiled again. 'Did you enjoy getting that out of your system? I bet you've been longing to tell someone exactly what you think of them as a piece of merchandise.'

He had no right to know what she was thinking. Having private thoughts was one of the few things Sylvie had been able to keep sacred. She scowled at him.

'That's a lovely way to look at the man who's going to set you free,' he remarked amiably. The scowl fell off Sylvie's face like the tank off the stand.

'Set me free!'

'That's why I bought you,' Dryden explained. He squatted down beside the bath, his elbows on his knees, getting on eye level with her. 'You're legally mine to do what I like with, and if what I like is taking you back where they caught you and letting you go, who's going to stop me? I don't happen to like seeing things in cages. When I heard someone had a mermaid for sale that far inland I didn't really believe it, but I thought I'd go and see just for curiosity. And when I saw you in that little glass coffin I knew straight off what I wanted to do. Get a good meal inside you for starters. Didn't he feed you?'

'I ... I haven't felt well enough to eat,' Sylvie stammered. She was thrown entirely off balance by this. Drylanders bought and sold you, she had been warned about that since she was a child, and she knew all too well from experience that it was true. She had never heard of buying a slave purely in order to free her.

'Do you think you could choke something down now? We haven't got any fresh seafood, but we do have tinned oysters and dried seaweed sheets. And I'm having the big display aquarium filled as we speak ... salting the water and everything. I know it's not the same as real seawater, but I'll do my best to make you feel at home until we say goodbye.'

'When will that be?' she asked eagerly.

'You're so flattering,' Dryden smiled. 'Can't wait to see the back of me, can you? Well, it won't be for at least three more weeks. I have to make a round trip, because I've got various meetings planned and I want to be in time for various fairs, and that's the soonest we can get round to the Beidurl area. But I promise you that's where we're heading, eventually. And when your family see you again, I don't think you want to look like this, do you?'

'N-no,' Sylvie said, uncertainly. He was offering her such a wonderful hope that she had to work very hard not to grab onto it with all her heart. Remember it might still go wrong. Remember he might change his mind. Setting mermaids free might seem like a nice idea to him now but he might get bored with it, they get bored easily, or if I get too healthy and pretty he might decide to keep me after all… but it can't hurt to eat a little, can it?

She was feeling a little twitch of appetite for the first time in days. It was the word 'oysters' that had done it. They were her favourite treat. No-one had offered her anything as special as oysters in all her captivity. When they were anywhere near the sea, most people had appeared to feel that bait was good enough for her. Inland she had had to learn to eat freshwater fish, if anyone would give it to her, or worse, poultry, or red meat which she could hardly chew. She did not even get fed good meat; she suspected it was often dog-food. The vegetables were not much better; her hopes had leapt at the mention of lettuce but it was not like sea-lettuce, soft and filmy, and the subtle wrongness brought tears to her eyes. Now she imagined the deliciously clammy slip of a raw oyster going down her throat and her mouth watered.

Tinned oysters turned out to be different again, cooked somehow and packed in fishy oil, but they were oysters for all that and she ate a dozen. Dryden, who had brought her a tray and set it across the top of the bath himself, watched her eat, sitting on a stool with his chin on his hands, as interested as her elder sister Gerrane sitting on the rocks watching the tiny world of a tidepool.

Eating so much so quickly made Sylvie feel a little sick, and she was not at all sure her stomach was not going to throw the oysters out again. It had probably gotten used to being empty and resented the intrusion. She had to sit back and breathe deeply for a minute, and Dryden looked worried at the slight whistle of her air-breathing.

'Is that normal for you?' he asked. 'Or do you think you might have picked up some kind of lung trouble?'

'It's normal,' she assured him. 'I'm all right.'

'I used to get that when I was a kid,' he said, to her surprise. She had not thought anyone who lived in air could have trouble breathing it. 'I had to sleep propped up and breathe a lot of steam to open my airways. A couple of times they locked up so hard I nearly died. I grew out of it, I'm glad to say. But I was a pretty pathetic little kid, what with glasses and asthma and killer tonsillitis every winter. I didn't get out to play much so I turned into a bookworm, and I never grew out of that.' He waved a hand around the room, indicating the shelves.

Sylvie was not sure what to say. Drylanders did not usually tell you about themselves. Perhaps she should just respond in kind.

'When I was a little girl,' she offered, 'I had this theory that I could learn to walk on the end of my tail ... on land, you know ... if I tried hard enough. I used to go up on the beach at night, when drylanders wouldn't be around, and practise. But I could never even get up on the end of it. I used to get all puffed out trying, and sometimes I made myself feel quite sick.'

'Why did you want to walk on land?' he asked. 'Well, silly question, lots of people have thought it would be great to be able to swim like a fish. It's to do something different, right?'

'Yes,' she said. 'I wanted to walk around there and just ... well, see what it was like. You hear stories. Some explorers have gone up rivers ... they've met our cousins who live in lakes and streams, the naiads and nixies ... and they tell stories about strange animals like cows and dogs and cats ... and when I heard them I always thought what a shame it was that they could only tell about what they had seen from the riverbanks, and not actually go into the fields and towns and see what they were like up close.'

'Well, you've been an explorer after all,' Dryden pointed out. 'When you go home you can tell people all about the fields and towns. You can get something good out of practically any experience if you look for it.'

'I suppose,' said Sylvie doubtfully. She was beginning to feel better.

'Would you like a drink?' he asked politely. 'I can give you wine or milk or whatever you like, pretty much.'

'We don't drink like you do,' Sylvie said. 'Water comes in through our skins all the time. I would only need to drink if I were out of water for a long time, and since you've put me in this tub I'm fine.'

'So much for the expression drink like a fish,' Dryden said. 'Although you can't be a fish, can you? You're a mammal. But your tail's scaly, and those are very fishy fins. I can't quite work you out. You'll have to tell me all about yourself. I always thought that logically mermaids ought to have dolphin tails, or be more mixed all over like demi-humans, but there, you've upset all my theories. I've never really gotten to talk to a water-living person before. I remember once when I fell in a river an otter-man helped me out, but it's not the same, is it? He wouldn't stay to talk once he saw I was all right, and he must have held his breath underwater. What are you thinking with that look on your face?'

'That you could talk the barb off a stingray,' Sylvie said truthfully. He laughed. It was a remarkable laugh, not just a sound he made; it animated his whole face and his body seemed ready to join in. Sylvie thought he had rather a big mouth, but that was not objectionable. Her eyes were getting used to his colours, and now she thought about it, the ripply brown of his hair made her think rather of kelp, an entirely agreeable association.

A knock came at the door, and Dryden called out 'Yeah?' A short little rat-man put his head into the room. His face wore what looked like a habitually harried expression.

'The men have finished filling the tank, as you instructed,' he said, 'and do you realise what all that salt cost?'

'Yes,' said Dryden, 'to the last peizo, and I'm not worried, so nor should you be. We'll be seeing a return from the shares in Prossa Forestry this autumn, and I'm expecting to close some important deals when we get to Carile. I can afford to throw a little salt around. I'm feeling lavish. Have you met our guest? This is Sylvie. Sylvie, this is my secretary. Loud noises scare him and words of praise make him giggle and sneeze, and that's all you need to know to get along with him. Would you like to see your new room?'


He carried her again, very carefully so as not to pull her stitches or disturb her bandages. The tank was huge. She wondered what anyone would want a thing like that on a ship for.

'It was put in when we were taking a pod of dolphins to the new aquarium at Miramar Regis,' Dryden explained. 'Don't look at me like that, I was seventeen and still growing into my social conscience. Those were very well looked-after dolphins. We even made the bottom natural for them ... see the sand and rocks? If I'm going to be entertaining clients on board I sometimes stock it up with tropical fish to look pretty and impressive. Since you'll be here for a while we can try to get some fish and weed in. You'll be comfortable, won't you?' He was standing on the brink of the tank, looking down into the blue depths of water, still holding Sylvie securely. Down below was a viewing window, let into a lower cabin. In the opposite wall, the tank even had a sort of porthole, a double layer of reinforced glass, giving out onto the sky. All Sylvie could think of was the water.

Dryden lowered her carefully, although she could happily have been dropped straight in. As soon as she was anything like immersed, she twisted swiftly out of his arms and dove to the bottom of the tank. There was so much space! It was tiny compared to her family's range, but capacious compared to the aquariums she had been in before, and that was what mattered. She soared around its boundaries, rejoicing in the freedom of movement, the lack of defined direction beyond 'surface' and 'bottom,' the sheer cold exhilaration of proper salt water all around her, sluicing away her fatigue and misery. This surge of energy was pure adrenalin, and she could not keep up this pace long in her weakened state, but here and now it was wonderful and joyous.

Turning and banking in the water, feeling the rush and push of it, the constant reassuring pressure after which being out in weak air made her feel lost and drifting, she sped towards the surface, making the kind of power-rush that let her breach and leap in the air, turning in a shining arc, spraying chains of water from her fins and hair and outstretched arms before returning to the tank in a splash like an upside-down chandelier. She bobbed up again, blinking the water from her lashes, and found that she had unintentionally saturated Dryden with her splashing. He was gaping at her rather, just for a moment, before breaking up into laughter again. She liked the way he laughed more every time she heard it; such a warm, low chuckle. It caught you by surprise and warmed you, like swimming into a thermal vent you hadn't noticed was there.

'I guess you're feeling better,' he managed to say.

'I am! I am. Thank you!'

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