Sylvie - Chapter Three
is hard to strike the right balance between
protection and freedom, and there were still times
when Sylvie felt trapped, when she did not want to
speak to Dryden and dove to the bottom of the tank,
concealing herself in the furthest corner from the
viewing window, wishing for a place where she could
swim as far as she wanted to and meet no walls. The
aquarium was so comfortable that it felt very
artificial; there were none of the everyday
annoyances of sea life, like jellyfish and toxic
anemones, nor any of the real dangers, like
cruising sharks. All right, it was nice not to have
to worry about the predators, but she had been
living with the knowledge of them for nineteen
years and she felt she had a right to
a week, she was eating well and looking and feeling
immensely better than she had on the day Dryden
bought her. Despite her reservations about how he
might respond to the change in her, she felt she
owed it to her family to take good care of herself
now that she might be getting back to them. She was
still careful not to decorate herself in any way,
and let her hair float loose in the water, never
braiding or rolling it as she might have done at
home. Her cuts were mending quickly; Dryden was
amazed at how fast they healed.
don't think you'll even have any scars,' he said on
the first day of the second week, when he brought
her her breakfast. It was a kipper. Sylvie thought
smoking a fish was a quite disgusting thing to do,
but at least it had once been a decent,
ocean-living herring, with the ghost of a taste of
the sea in its orange-stained flesh.
this normal for you?' she asked him. 'You seem to
think it ought to take longer.'
know it would if it were me,' he said. 'I wonder
how that works? If it's something in your blood, or
in your skin itself, and if there'd be any way to
replicate it with medicine? It could be awfully
useful. I've always been more of a historian and
linguist, but I wish I were a biologist so I could
start to figure you out.' He sat at the edge of the
tank, comfortably cross-legged and smoking his
peculiar bubbling pipe while Sylvie picked at the
I don't wish to be figured out,' Sylvie said
stiffly. 'I'm not here for you to
of course you're not, and I beg your pardon for
talking that way. I can't help being curious,
though. You're rather amazing. And being curious
about you as a specimen is easier than being
curious about you as a person, because you won't
tell me anything much.' He blew out a plume of
blue-grey smoke and watched it disperse. It
reminded Sylvie of blowing bubbles.
does that work?' she asked, pointing to the part of
the pipe that looked like a bottle or lamp. 'I
mean, I know you suck smoke through the water.
makes it cooler and purer, and filters out a lot of
the rubbish,' he said. 'It's just more agreeable.
Do you want a puff? Don't breathe it right in, just
let it into your mouth.' He offered her the
mouthpiece at the end of its snaky tube. Sylvie
tried it with an air of suspicion. The first breath
of smoke made her cough convulsively.
right, all right, it's not for everyone,' he said
hastily, and reached over to pat her on the back.
'I think you inhaled. Did you inhale? I told you
think you're absolutely mad,' she said, blinking
away tears. She was not crying, but the coughing
had made her eyes water. 'How can you stand
not only stand it, I like it. Well, you like eating
raw fish, and I think that's pretty repulsive.
Doesn't make me think any less of you.'
is very good for you,' Sylvie said, with
course it is,' he agreed equably, 'it's brain food.
You can tell fish are clever because they spend all
their time in schools.' He gave her a dreadful
cheesy grin and waggled his eyebrows.
awful,' Sylvie told him severely, trying not
to smile, with limited success.
you go to school? In the sea, I mean? Do you have
written language down there, and
course we have,' Sylvie replied. 'We have cities
and universities. My father Tanamil is a professor.
That was why explorers and researchers came to
visit him, and I got to hear their
love to meet him,' Dryden said. 'I hope you'll
introduce me to your family when I take you
offence, but I don't think they would want to meet
you.' Sylvie had finished her breakfast and was
circling lazily near where Dryden sat. 'My mother,
especially, is very anti-drylander.'
there's me with dry right there in my name,'
he observed. 'Not Our Kind of People, as my own
dear mother sometimes says. So you went to school?
What were your favourite subjects? I was wondering
the other day if you weren't bored in there, with
nothing much to occupy you, and I thought you might
possibly like to borrow a few books. I'd ask you to
dry your hands before you read them ... hold them
out of the water, I mean ... but you're welcome to
although they had a spoken language in common, it
transpired that the alphabet of Dryden's books was
foreign to Sylvie. Dryden was not at all dismayed,
and settled himself to reading aloud.
you have other things to do?' she asked, feeling
rather guilty. She had gathered that Dryden was an
important businessman, and probably did not have
much time to spare for entertaining a guest. Or a
slave, for that matter.
to get rid of me again? It's not going to work. I'd
be reading this today anyway, and it's no skin off
my nose to do that out loud. And I wish you'd let
me try to teach you the characters. They're not
that hard, it's not as though they're
if I could read them myself you wouldn't have to
read to me,' she said.
I mean I would enjoy teaching you something. It'd
be something for us to do together ... really
together, not just you being here and listening
while I do something, or talk. Come on, Sylv ...
why won't you tell me some more about
Sylvie,' she said, and chose to ignore the last
part of what he had said. 'All right ... let's
start at the beginning again, and this time I'll
really try to learn them. Perhaps if I had a stylus
and a slate so I could copy them I'd remember
lessons went well. Dryden blew off most of his
business for that day, leaving her only when he
really had to.
pick things up very quickly when you're making the
effort,' he said. 'You really are smart. I'll have
to try raw fish.'
me if I've got this right,' Sylvie said, holding up
her slate. 'Is this how to write your
the sounds of my name, but not how I spell it,' he
said. 'Good try. I mean, if I had any sense I'd
spell it Duraiden, but since when has spelling been
sensible? Take out the u and let a y stand for the
name isn't dr-why-den,' she complained. 'Letters
ought to make the sound they stand for, and I think
it's disgraceful to make the vowels do as much work
as you force them to.'
are worse systems,' he said cheerfully. 'They've
got some absolute swines of languages on the
Phantom Moon, though it's pretty hard to learn any
of them from here.'
the Phantom Moon?'
you never looked at the sky at night?' he asked,
looking very surprised. 'That ghostly blue and
white moon, next to the blotchy grey-white one.
There are people living there, though we don't
think there are on the white moon.'
... but we don't call that the Phantom Moon. It's
the Blue Pearl.'
pretty. Do you like pearls?'
all right.' Sylvie turned her attention to the
pages of the history book open on the ledge in
front of her. She was head and shoulders out of the
water, her damp hair carefully draped to cover her
body, resting her elbows on the edge of the tank.
She rehearsed the sentence she wanted to read in
her head before trying to pronounce it.
know, you shouldn't move your lips like that when
you read silently,' Dryden said, sounding amused
and a little affectionate. She felt he was
patronising her, and pinched her lips together
primly, although she had not known they were
recent prosperity of Asturia is chiefly
attributable to the vigorous economic policies of
King Grava Efud Aston and to the favour of Jeture,'
she read carefully.
why this writer annoys me,' Dryden said, 'he always
feels he's got to stick in a little bit of piety to
head off the possibility that people might just
have achieved things by themselves. And the recent
prosperity of Asturia is prosperity for what you
might call the right people. The much-vaunted
trickle-down effect isn't happening yet, and
personally I doubt it ever will. What are we to
take from that? Jeture doesn't like scabby poor
you've got such a social conscience,' Sylvie asked,
'why are you going around massing up
to an end,' he said. 'The King is never going to
take an interest in projects to benefit the
underclasses, so the backing will have to come from
private investors. I've got to build up capital to
invest, right? Money isn't valuable in itself.
What's valuable is the power it gives you, and I
don't mean the power to have, it's the power to do.
If I see something in the world that bothers me, if
I've got enough money I can change it. Great stuff.
Whether it's sponsoring the education of inner-city
children ... which is something I intend to look
into ... or acquiring shop-soiled mermaids, money
is what makes all the difference. It's what gives
me freedom, and it's giving you freedom too, so
don't look down your nose at my business acumen.
Besides, it's an enjoyable challenge. And it keeps
me away from home.'
in the world do you want to stay away from home?'
Sylvie asked. There was a part of her that never
stopped crying for home, even when she was, as now,
quite pleasantly occupied.
don't have the world's easiest rapport with my
father,' he said dryly. 'Ironically, he approves of
me doing this. He thinks it's just great that I
spend all my time out here with the fleet.
Especially, I suppose, since it means I'm not
around the house criticising him or taking Mother's
side in arguments or tipping off the health and
safety inspectors about conditions in his factories
... he's still never really forgiven me for that
one, he had to spend a lot of money to bring the
facilities up to code, and my father does love
money for itself. And I suppose that's fine, if you
happen to think it's morally acceptable to let
ten-year-old children work unprotected at mill
machines that could take your arm off in a second,
in order to save money. I'll tell you something
else, everyone who works for me gets a wage they
can live on.'
was beginning to look angry, to Sylvie's alarm, and
he saw that alarm in her eyes. Dryden laughed, with
a slight air of effort. 'Getting a bit heavy there,
I realise. My father's one of those people Jeture
is supposed to favour, you know. Tell me something,
is She actually out there? Have you ever seen a big
mystical sea dragon with a liking for free-market
economies and an inability to leave well enough
alone when it comes to drowned princes?'
Sylvie admitted. 'I'd heard of her, from an
explorer who took an interest in foreign religions,
but I've certainly never seen anything like that.
It's not as though I've been everywhere. There are
things down in the deep-sea trenches, where we
can't go because the water pressure's so strong,
that have never seen the light of day. People have
gone quite deep in special protective gear, and
brought back fish that burst open at the surface. I
suppose your Jeture could live there.'
I'm fairly sure the mythology would mention it if
she were given to exploding in fresh air,' Dryden
said. 'Well, the religion must be based on
something. It doesn't have to be a physically real
are sea dragons, of course,' Sylvie told him, 'but
they're not very big or mystical. They're about
twelve feet long and fairly stupid. And there are
big serpents living far out to sea, in the deeps
with the great whales and the krakens.'
krakens, giant squid ... you know, no-one on land
has ever seen one alive,' Dryden said. 'Some fairly
big specimens have gotten caught in fishermen's
nets or been washed up after storms, but we know
there must be bigger ones down there from the size
of the sucker scars people see on whales. Have you
seen a kraken?'
said Sylvie. She was sorry she could not assuage
Dryden's curiosity, since he was clearly very
enthusiastic about the subject. Then again, Dryden
seemed very enthusiastic about practically any
subject you cared to name. The range of topics on
which he was startlingly knowledgeable seemed
almost infinite, and he was always eager to learn
something more. She rather liked to get him talking
about something obscure like the shamanic religions
of the Fanelian wolfmen, or the physics of Energist
and floating-rock propulsion systems, and the
amazing things he'd heard they were doing in
Zaibach these days, because he talked with such
animation that it was rather a pleasure to see and
hear him, and of course it took the obligation off
her to say anything much. She was learning
interesting and surprising things. It was humbling
to meet someone so immensely cleverer than she knew
herself to be, but also refreshing that he did not
seem to find her in any way inferior to himself. If
there were things he knew and she didn't, he only
wanted to tell her about them so she could enjoy
knowing them too.
the next couple of days he was very busy, because
they stopped at a city where an important annual
market and merchants' convention was being held,
and he had to be out 'networking,' as he said, as
well as doing real business buying and selling. He
gave an extremely lavish dinner on board his
flagship, which involved using the room with the
window into the aquarium, but Sylvie was not in it
at the time. Dryden moved her back to his stateroom
for the evening, so she could sit comfortably in
the salted bath with as many books as she could
wish for within arm's reach, in peace and privacy.
did not get lonely in that time, because she was
enjoying reading enormously now that the characters
were making more sense to her. She still had to
refer to a little cheat-sheet from time to time, to
decode hard words or remind herself what the
less-frequently occurring letters looked like, but
it got easier all the time. She was working her way
through a heavy stack of back issues of a satirical
magazine published in Pallas, called
Charivari. It was wonderfully absurd, and
Dryden seemed pleased that many of her favourite
stories were the same as his. It gave them jokes in
common, so that they could make each other laugh by
shorthand. No-one at home would know what she meant
by 'a curate's egg,' which struck her as rather a
shame. Perhaps she could make pencil copies of some
of the stories on sea-paper, and trace the
cartoons. Manaly would enjoy this sort of thing,
and so would Tanamil. She had never really thought
that drylanders could be funny, but this proved it.
And it made Dryden happy when she
fell asleep in the bath on the night of the grand
dinner, the 14 Purple number of last year's
Charivari sliding unheeded into the water,
and woke to find that it was morning and Dryden was
asleep in the bed across the room. The magazine was
so soaked that it was coming to pieces in the
water, and when she snatched it up half the pages
gave way and plopped damply into the bath. A
wordless, guilty whimper sounded in her throat.
Dryden stirred in his sleep and made a noise that
was not quite a snore, but might be one when it
grew up. Sylvie looked around the room frantically.
All she could think of was to be out of his way
before he found that she had ruined one of his
precious magazines. For all he talked about not
valuing possessions for themselves, Dryden loved
his books very much. He had actually asked her to
take care to turn the pages only from the top
right-hand corner, to use a proper bookmark instead
of turning down any corners, even in magazines, and
of course above all to make sure her hands were dry
before she touched the paper. She had her own
little towel for that purpose. He would go mad. He
would surely decide to punish her somehow; that was
what drylanders did.
only place she could keep out of his way was in the
bottom of her aquarium, and that was out of the
room and down several corridors. There was really
no time to lose. In the end she raised herself over
the side of the bathtub with her arms, and swung
her tail over the side as silently as she could,
which was not very. The water gurgled, splashed and
dripped unbelievably loudly. In the bed, Dryden
turned over and hugged his pillow. The head of the
bed was right beside the door. Sylvie writhed
forward over the floor, leaving a trail of puddles.
Strands of her hair got caught under her body and
were painfully pulled. Her breathing grew louder,
and turned to wheezing; her frantic efforts to
suppress the sound made her more short of breath.
Still, incredibly, Dryden continued to sleep.
she drew level with the head of the bed, he mumbled
something indistinguishable and she froze, staring
up at him. What she still thought of as his windows
were hooked over the top rail of the bedhead, so
that his face looked undressed. Undressed
was a drylander idea; she was picking things up
whether she liked it or not. The rest of him was
partly undressed too; he had undone his hair from
the ponytail, dropped his outer robes in a messy
pile at the end of the bed and gone to sleep in his
shirt. That was as much as she could see above the
covers, which were rucked around his waist. For the
first time she could see, more or less, what shape
he was. Perhaps because of the thick shapelessness
of his clothes, she had been thinking of him as
possibly quite stout, but this was inaccurate. He
was really very well-built, broad-shouldered and
in the sea am I noticing a thing like that for?
Sylvie waited until she was sure Dryden was only
murmuring in his sleep, not waking up, and turned
her attention to the door. It was firmly shut, and
she found that she could not reach the knob from
her supine position on the floor. It was rather
high, and even when she arched up from the waist
and stretched her arm as far as she could it was
out of her grasp. Damn.
remembered her childhood theory about standing on
her tail. Although she had never managed to get
right up, she had sometimes managed to get into a
sort of halfway position, like a drylander
kneeling. That might be enough. She only hoped she
would not make too much noise doing it. She heaved
herself up on her arms, fighting for breath, and
tried to get her tail under her torso. It had been
a long time since she had done this and she was
badly out of practice. She managed to fold her tail
under her and sit on it. Right. One strong push
up, and grab the doorhandle. She pushed, she
rose, and things started to go wrong from there.
She had pushed harder than she needed to to get
into just a kneeling position, and shot up so that,
for a moment, she almost was standing on her fins
as she had imagined. I must not have been strong
enough then, she thought in the split second
before she overbalanced, arms spinning, and fell
over sideways on top of Dryden on the
hit him more or less amidships, sprawling crossways
across his stomach. Her head nearly went down
between the side of the bed and the wall. Dryden
sat up with a bound and said thickly, as though he
were still half asleep, 'I'm up
struggled up, wheezing desperately. 'Please don't
be angry with me!' she croaked, got her hand caught
in a twist of the bedding, and toppled again,
against the upper half of his body. They both fell
back against the pillows. There was a long moment
in which the only sound was Sylvie's erratic
breathing. Being face-down on top of Dryden did not
help. Her heart was thumping with panic, and he
could probably feel that through his own chest. She
was getting his bedclothes all wet. There was no
telling how angry he might be. She shut her eyes
and waited for a bellow or a blow.
this a wake-up call?' Dryden asked, quite gently.
In fact, he sounded a little shaken, as though he
were not quite sure what to make of the situation.
'It's ... it's a nice surprise.' He put his hand on
Sylvie's shoulder, also gently, even hesitantly.
She risked opening one eye.
was an accident,' she said. 'I slipped
he said, and tried to cover a momentary look of
disappointment with a smile. 'I thought for a
moment you'd suddenly found me irresistible. Maybe
I'm cute when I'm asleep, I don't know. Maybe all
that being a gentleman was paying off.'
tidal wave of embarrassment roared in Sylvie's
ears. She had thought that if he didn't directly
ask her for any physical favours, he must not be
interested in them. In fact, she had been hoping
that he was too used to pitying her to think about
desiring her. Then it occurred to her that in this
way she might be able to distract him from getting
angry with her, and perhaps deciding not to free
her after all.
afraid one of your magazines slipped into the bath
while I was asleep,' she said, carefully omitting
to say that this was because she had dropped off
reading it. 'But please take this to make up for
it.' Acting quickly before she could have time to
get too nervous to do it, she firmly shut her eyes
and kissed his wide, friendly mouth.
counted in her head, trying to make sure it was
enough to be worth his while. One, two, three,
At two, after a moment's
startled inactivity, Dryden slipped one of his arms
around her waist, squeezing her gently, while his
other hand went to her head, stroking her hair. At
three, a soft pressure from that hand tipped her
head so that the kiss became more comfortable;
their lips seemed to nest together better. At four,
she noticed with great surprise that she could feel
his heart pounding too, and at five she realised
with even greater shock that she was enjoying
herself. This was why she broke away before she
could find out what would happen at six.
was the 14th of Purple issue,' she said, as though
this were a quite important detail. Dryden blinked
for a moment as though he had never heard of such a
matter,' he said. 'I can order a back-issue.
They've got heaps. It's not a problem. Can I kiss
you again to celebrate?'
Sylvie was trying to decide if she thought that was
at all a good idea, he rather slyly took silence
for consent and went ahead. This kiss would have
lasted for a count of ten if Sylvie had been
sufficiently composed to think of counting. She had
had to kiss so many of her masters that it seemed
upside-down to do it for fun. And again, not one of
them had asked for kisses, even as a
let her have her mouth back again. 'What are you
thinking, with that funny look on your face?' he
asked, sounding slightly breathless.
you're nicer to kiss than my old boyfriend,' she
said, truthfully; she had been thinking that,
somewhere in the back of her head, and it was
easier to say than everything else. Ander had not
been much of a kisser, but you couldn't expect much
from a thirteen-year-old.
I take that to mean that I'm your new boyfriend?'
he said hopefully. Sylvie panicked.
can't breathe,' she squeaked, and dove off the bed,
making for the nearest haven of respiratory safety.
Through the enamelly echoes in the water she heard
Dryden move to sit on the edge of the bed, and
pronounce in a grave tone, 'So saying, she jumped
off me and dunked her head in a bath of cold water.
I just have that effect on women.' Sylvie decided
to ignore him just for the moment, until she was
feeling less flustered and more
oxygen was coming through, all right, but the
flusterment did not seem to be abating. To make
matters worse, he left the bed and crossed the room
to where she was draped over the side of the
bathtub (the edge pressing uncomfortably into her
waist) and sat on the floor beside her. After a
moment he touched the fin at the end of her tail
with one finger, and carefully traced the line of
one of its ribs.
I upset you?' he asked. 'I didn't want to. I
thought you knew I liked you.'
flipped her fins away from him.
sighed. 'I would have said something sooner, but I
thought perhaps you wouldn't be attracted to a ...
what do you call us? A drylander. I thought perhaps
I was being a bit of a deviant, getting so
interested in someone from another species, and
just to be brutally frank I thought perhaps I was
mainly interested because I kind of liked being
able to see your breasts all the time. I didn't
think that was very fair to you so I kept holding
back from doing anything about it, and I thought
you were not doing anything because that was how
you wanted it. I'd've been completely different
with a human girl. I mean, I'd have been sure of
myself then. And why not? I'm rolling in dough,
I've one of the best minds of my generation and,
let's face it, I'm pretty cute whether I'm asleep
raised her head from the bathtub and stared at him
through dripping curtains of turquoise hair. He had
put on his windows, shiny smartass
can't believe you,' she said.
He looked surprised, and put one hand on his heart
in a mock-innocent wounded gesture. 'Is any of that
not supposed to say it!'
have to, if you won't!' Dryden grinned. 'You know I
don't believe in beating around the bush. If we're
both attracted to each other, why shouldn't we
admit it and enjoy each other's company? I'll be
extremely nice to you.'
extremely nice to me anyway,' Sylvie said. 'When
you were enumerating your dazzling virtues, you
forgot to say that you're kind-hearted to a
admit it,' said Dryden, nodding soberly. 'Although
I try not to let that be too widely known, in case
it ruins my reputation as a hard-headed
never tell.' Sylvie passed a hand through her hair,
trying to get it out of her face. Dryden reached
over and helped her, letting his hand drop from her
hairline to trace the side of her face. It didn't
bother her, and it worried her not to be
you please give me a straight answer instead of
being a slippery little fish? I've never known
anyone like you for avoiding personal questions.
Although "I can't breathe" isn't up to your usual
standards of smoothness.'
pushed herself back from the rim of the bathtub and
turned to sit down by his side. She laced her hands
together in front of her and looked at how the
be fair to you,' she said, 'I should say that I
wasn't feeling at all that way about you until you
you kissed back.'
self-defense.' He smiled. 'So was it like a romance
novel and everything changed in that moment? That
speaks very well for the standard of my
one of the nicest people I've ever met, but also
one of the vainest.' Sylvie turned her linked hands
over and looked at the palms.
still kissed me first, so why did you decide you
wanted to do that if you didn't think you fancied
was hoping to distract you from getting furious
with me about ruining the magazine.' Sylvie hunched
up her tail in front of her and dropped the loop of
her arms over the top protectively. Now it all just
sounded devious, and he might get furious about
that too. She risked a sideways glance at his face.
He looked disappointed.
you really think I'd be that upset about a soggy
get angry about funny things. I didn't want to be
said Dryden slowly. He sounded very much as though
he were displeased, but trying not to be angry at
all, to prove his point. 'It's not very nice to
hear that you think of me in the same order as the
other men who have owned you. I thought I'd
established from the start that I was different. I
consider you my guest, not my slave, and I
definitely don't consider myself in a position to
punish you, whatever you do. If you ruined my
things and weren't sorry, then I'd be angry, sure
look, did you really think I'd
lose it over something like that? Do you really not
trust me at all?'
we call the kiss an apology, then?' Sylvie said
hopefully. 'To show I really was sorry? And I could
give you another one to stop this turning into a
sounds like the same again,' he complained.
'Appeasement tactics. You'd do well in politics
do you mean?' Sylvie asked, a little grateful for
Dryden looked weary, and rolled his head backwards.
His hair was tangled loosely across his shoulders,
pinned between his back and the bathtub, and he
irritably pushed a hand in to free it. Sylvie
wondered about helping him in return, but did not
decide to do it in time. 'Well,' he said,
'something is rotten in the state of Zaibach, I
guess. Funny things are happening. For no reason
anyone can understand, they appear to have attacked
Fanelia and razed the capital. Have you ever heard
have most people, that's the sort of place it is.
Nice little backwater where there aren't really any
social divisions between beast-people and humans.
Local industries include stealing each other's
laundry and dragonslaying, you know the sort of
thing. They haven't had a proper king for a long
time because they were waiting for the only
surviving heir to get old enough to wear long
pants. I don't know why Zaibach would want to
attack them. The last time anything interesting
happened in Fanelia was when the old king ... the
new one's father ... got married to some woman his
priests didn't approve of, although why they didn't
like her was hushed up. Apparently the monarchy
looked wobbly for a while. And it's been nothing
but wobbles ever since ... after the father
sickened and died, about ten years back, the eldest
son appears to have ended up as a dragon's dinner,
his mother went off searching for him and
disappeared too, so this crusty old general's been
taking care of things in the interim
right, they were vulnerable, but that isn't a
motive for the attack in itself.'
it politics?' Sylvie asked. 'You said something
yes. Zaibach and Asturia are treaty partners. So
the official line being taken is appeasement; they
keep saying that Lord Dornkirk is a man of reason
and there's got to be a reasonable limit to what he
wants. My father is very tight with the King, and
frankly, neither of them is the type of man to take
a stand on principle when it would involve annoying
someone potentially difficult. Zaibach's a fairly
amazing country. I've always wanted to be able to
visit, but they don't let foreigners in. It's the
kind of place that I suppose they'd say is favoured
by Jeture, except they don't believe in Jeture. I
think they're atheist. They say they're making
their own destiny, so I guess they don't need
that how you'd like it to be?' Sylvie
don't know,' he said thoughtfully. 'It might work
if people would behave themselves just out of a
sense of decency. But most people seem to feel that
it's not worth it unless you're thereby scoring
points with a god. No, I think religion's
necessary, but it's like money, understand how it
works, use it for the good of everyone, and don't
take it too seriously.'
the Zaibach people don't seem to be behaving
themselves,' Sylvie murmured. She had never really
thought much about drylanders' wars. One thing the
sea-people always felt thankful for was not having
to be involved in anything like that. It wasn't
even necessary to know about it.
we'll see how it turns out, and draw our
conclusions,' Dryden said, as though it did not
worry him much. 'It might turn into a war, it might
it be dangerous for you if there is a
no, war's good for business. And peace is good for
business. It works out coming and going. And it'll
probably mean the spread of new technology, if
history is anything to go by, so again, you can get
something good out of everything.' Dryden gave
Sylvie a sidelong look. 'And you've done it again,
sidetracked me. I suppose I can take it from that
that you find me resistible after all. Oh well.
Friends anyway, right?'
bit her lip. She felt she was displeasing him ...
no, making him unhappy, which was worse, but she
did not know how to arrange things so that they
would feel right for both of them. 'Could you take
me back to my aquarium, please?'
trouble,' said Dryden, getting to his feet. He
stooped to pick her up, and Sylvie hooked her arm
around his neck to keep steady.
this a nice irony,' he said, smiling. 'You don't
want to be my girlfriend, but I end up with you in
my arms anyway. No, don't speak, darling, you'll
spoil the moment.' Sylvie felt that she was
blushing, partly with irritation, because it was
not fair for him to make jokes about it. She turned
her face away from him, which meant twisting her
neck at an awkward angle, and maintained it
obstinately as he walked to the room where the top
opening of the tank threw ripples of light on the
you are,' he said, lowering her to the water. 'Back
in your comfort zone.' Sylvie dove down rapidly,
leaving hardly a ripple on the surface, so that at
least the coldness of the depths took some of the
heat from her face. He would want to know that,
too, wouldn't he, that she was warm-blooded.
Probably wouldn't be happy until he had everything
about her pinned out on a board; until he knew
everything there was to know and had mastered the
subject of Sylvie.
had been nice to kiss him. That was the problem.
Her lips still felt warm. Brown hair waving like
kelp fronds and the slight taste of salt from his
close your eyes and count to
and I fall into an ocean of you
this is silly and sentimental. In a little while,
anyway, I will get to go home to my family and I
won't need to worry about him any more, or any of
this drylander business. It will be very nice to be
friends with him until then, and then we'll say
goodbye and go on with happy lives. He's obviously
going to be all right whatever happens. My mind is
firmly made up.
composed herself, she returned to the surface, and
found him still on the rim of the tank, sitting on
the edge and paddling his feet in the water. The
lower half of his body was wrapped in a sort of
underlayer sheet-skirt, which he had rolled up
around his knees.
bob there checking out my legs,' he said mildly.
Sylvie had only her eyes above water level, partly
masked by thick wet hair. She lifted her chin so he
could hear her speak.
think I can look at whatever I like, since you
admit to looking at my breasts.'
no, I didn't say I looked, I said I could
see. Anyone can see. Was that a condition of
your captivity, I mean, did you wear clothes of any
kind at home?'
Sylvie said, and sighed in mild vexation. But
perhaps giving him a proper explanation for once
would satisfy him. 'Clothes in the water aren't
very practical, if you think about it. When
drylanders fall in the water and drown, it's often
because of the weight of their clothes and boots
and things. The way you dress you're just asking to
drown, if you ever take a tumble.'
someone's obliging enough to save me,' Dryden said,
swinging his feet to stir the water. The sound of
the ripples spread with the movement of current.
'You know, your people could get yourselves a much
better reputation if you went around saving
distressed swimmers and men overboard. Like
dolphins. There are heaps of stories about dolphins
rescuing people, and everyone loves 'em. Whereas
everyone says that mermaids drown men.'
do not,' Sylvie defended her people.
you just don't help them.'
don't interfere. We don't get involved. It's better
that way. Your people certainly haven't given us
any reason to trust you, or help you. Look at
things like those Zaibach people. We don't have
wars or invasions in the sea. There are no
boundaries and people respect each other's
territories out of decency, like you were talking
about. You might like it if you could visit there
too. If you didn't spend all your time staring at
don't stare,' Dryden protested, sounding more
amused than defensive, 'as well you know, and from
what you say I suppose I should be naked on such a
visit anyway. Well, unless you would consider a
bathing suit acceptable.'
have clothes for swimming in? What's wrong
with you people? Why are you all so obsessed with
either covering yourselves up or looking at other
people uncovered? Is it supposed to be nice or
well, everyone feels it's nice, but they
think, or say, it's nasty. And of
course there are practical considerations. We need
to keep warm. And there's something else that
doesn't make sense about you ... to keep warm in
water you really ought to have blubber. You've got
no right to have such a good figure.'
frowned. 'So you were looking at me to work out why
I wasn't fat?'
I was looking at you because you're beautiful.' He
grinned sunnily. 'And I like that mauvy colour when
it's extremely becoming. It's exactly right with
the colour of your hair. But enough about you, what
do you think of me?'
do you want me to say?'
I suppose I want to give you an opportunity to get
your own back.'
swam slowly to the side of the pool and folded her
arms on the edge, then rested her chin on her
forearms. She tilted her head carefully to look up
am going to be completely honest, you
can I ask one thing first? How old are
was twenty-one in Yellow. Key of the door,
I need to get you a birthday present this
it's already been Yellow. I'll show you a
only two years older than me.'
I need to get you a birthday present this
for another six months. I just wondered. All right.
Diversion over, honesty time.' Sylvie drew a
pattern with water on the marble. 'I think you're
very handsome. I like your hair undone like that,
and I like your smile, and I like your eyes
so much better without windows.'
no-one likes windows,' Dryden said. 'Windows? Can't
stand them. Down with windows, am I right? I'd go
for an alternative system any time. You're talking
about my glasses, right? Because otherwise I'm just
you are just babbling,' Sylvie assured him, and
smiled broadly. 'You were expecting me to criticise
your bristles again, weren't you?'
eyebrows lifted in surprise. 'You little minx,' he
also like your eyebrows. Can I have a better
?' He leaned down towards her, dropping
on one elbow. His breathing had gone light and
quick; when he was really close she could feel the
tiny current of air against her face, like a weaker
cousin of water.
plucked the glasses off Dryden's nose and scudded
away backwards through the water, holding them
straightened up with a bellow of
I need those to see!'
do not. You look over the tops of them half the
I need them to read. One's no good without the
other! Come on, not funny, give them back.' Dryden
reached out a hand, but there was a clear two
metres of shining water between them. Sylvie
laughed, and tried the glasses on for
she exclaimed. 'They'd give me a
you a bit nearsighted? No? Then take them off,
they're not your prescription. Sylvie, give them
back. I'm asking nicely. Please give them
you think they suit me?' Sylvie asked, tipping the
glasses to the end of her nose and looking at him
over the rims.
very cute. What happened to being afraid of making
you know if you show weakness just once I'll walk
... no, swim all over you? It's no way to show me
who's master. I'll get the idea I'm your mistress,'
she said loftily.
don't mind if you get that idea, and I am getting
my glasses back.' Dryden lifted himself on his
hands and boosted himself off into the water,
disappearing under the surface for a moment and
reappearing with a thrashing of arms. 'Ack! It's
cold!' He swam towards Sylvie, not particularly
well even by drylander standards. She waited for
him politely, hovering in the water, holding her
position with a very slight undulation of her
said Dryden, arriving with a splash and catching
Sylvie's wrists. 'Give 'em back.'
can't, you're holding both my hands. You didn't
plan this. What are you going to do, take them off
with your teeth?' She bobbed her head at him and
the glasses, whose arms had not been securely
hooked over her pointed ears but loosely pushed
into her hair, slipped off the end of her nose and
dropped with an understated plunk into the water
between them. They both watched dumbstruck as the
gold-rimmed spectacles sank, turning gently over
and over until they disappeared into the blue-white
the thing of it is,' Dryden said quietly, 'I really
do need those.'
said Sylvie guiltily. 'Back in a tick.' She pulled
out of his grip easily and turned head over fins,
disappearing down and leaving him to clumsily tread
water. Dryden tried to see where she had gone, but
the slight fogging of his vision at a distance was
compounded by the distortion of deep water, and he
could make out only a flashing movement far below,
receding and flickering, silver and green, turning
back on itself in a flurry and rushing up towards
him again. Sylvie broke the surface in front of him
and held up the wet glasses
them before they hit the bottom,' she said. 'No
harm done, so can you forgive a
you going to make a habit of dropping my
possessions in the water?'
a habit. It'll be spontaneous every
are you flirting with me all of a sudden? Don't
stop, but can you explain?' Dryden paddled a little
closer to Sylvie, much less stable in the water
than she was. She was able to keep her shoulders
clear of the surface, while he had to struggle to
keep his chin up.
happening by itself. Please remember that I never
actually said I didn't like you. I wanted some
breathing space.' I don't know why I feel so
much more confident now, Sylvie reflected.
It may just be because I'm in my own element and
he's out of his. 'Here is your appeasement
kiss.' She made that brief, because she was still a
long way from total confidence.
not appeased. I think I might be unappeasable.
You'd better try it again.' Dryden slid his arms
around her and drew her closer; in that way he
could no longer paddle with his arms or legs, but
in her own element Sylvie was strong enough to keep
both of them steady.
funny how your face is cold and wet and your mouth
is warm and wet,' she said, after some time. It was
a little difficult to speak, because her heart was
beating fast and she was beginning to wheeze
you all right?' Dryden asked. 'Am I actually having
a dangerous effect on you? I don't want to make you
be fine,' Sylvie told him. 'Hold your breath.' She
drew him down under the surface and devoted her
mouth entirely to kissing him while she took the
deep breaths she needed through her gills. This was
so comfortable that she quite lost count of how
long it had been until Dryden twisted away from her
rather frantically and made for the surface.
Following, she found him spluttering and
how mermaids drown men, then,' he managed to say.
'You make us want to stay down there with you, and
if I breathed air into your mouth? I can do that.
It would be like blowing bubbles. Little
heart-shaped bubbles, popping on your
think you and I are going to have some problems
this way,' Dryden said, rather earnestly, which was
unusual for him. 'If I kiss you my way you start
gasping like a beached whale, which is not as
flattering as you'd think; if you kiss me your way
too much I'm a dead man.'
come under the water again. I want to see how you
look with your hair floating. I'd like to see you
when I see you through the window, when
I watch you swim, it isn't as though you're
swimming at all. It's like flying
come and fly with me.' Sylvie tugged eagerly on his
know I can't. I never even got my bronze swimming
certificate at school. I swim like you walk,
you'd better get out,' Sylvie said,
you throwing me out? Please don't be throwing me
out, this was so nice.'
I just don't want you to feel like I'm drowning
you. It's an awful way to feel.'
will get out just now. I think I'm getting
waterlogged. But I'm not going to stop trying to
work out a way around this, I promise.' He kissed
her once more on the cheek, turned and began to
dog-paddle back towards the edge, rather choppily.
Sylvie swooped through the water under him,
describing a spiral, running escort like a dolphin
in the bow-wave of a ship, a fluid counterpoint to
his angular movements. She reached the brink well
ahead of him and looked back to find him struggling
towards her, evidently trying to keep his face out
of the water so he could see which way he was
going. He had managed to get his glasses back on
and kept interrupting his stroke to put a hand to
the bridge of his nose and make sure they were
secure. It would not be kind to laugh at him but
she had to bite her lip and turn away to be
you laughing at me, miss merminx?' Dryden asked
with mock severity.
yes you are.' There was a chuckle in his voice
not! Not!' Sylvie caught the rim of the tank with
her hands and pulled, then pushed herself up to sit
on the side, just to take the place he had
occupied. 'Here's a thing,' she said, 'me
sitting on the edge watching you splash
about. Now I need a smelly bubbly pipe, a fat book
about something arcane and a ridiculous bow in my
don't approve of all this rôle reversal,'
Dryden said, 'it's making you bumptious.' He looked
at her half-reproachfully, but he was still
actually making me myself again,' Sylvie said
thoughtfully. 'I feel like my old self, from when I
just belonged to me. You might not have known it to
look at me, but I used to be fairly cheerful most
of the time.'
That's one of the nicest things I've ever heard,'
he said, and looked wholeheartedly glad. 'I still
maintain that this comes of kissing me. It's in
accordance with all the best fairy-tales, the magic
kiss.' Growing tired of treading water, he decided
to try hanging onto her tail, resting his chin on
the upper curve which might, for want of a better
word, have been called her knees.
read some of those the other night,' Sylvie said.
'What's a grown man like you doing with books of
just like them. They're very good stories. Most of
them have been around for hundreds of years, passed
on by word of mouth before they ever got recorded
in writing, so they've evolved into the most
perfect narrative form to completely satisfy human
minds. Anything that wasn't good would get
forgotten or changed next time someone told the
story. All those minds and voices, remembering and
retelling and polishing the story like water
polishes a stone, in the sea or a river, till it's
perfectly smooth and a lovely oval. In the last
century or so, people have started trying to write
new fairy-tales, but there's usually something not
quite right about them. They're well-made from a
literary point of view, but they don't satisfy you
deep down, I find, not the way they should, not
like the good old tales. I've got a theory that if
we could collect up the fairy stories from all over
the world, we'd find that a lot of them are the
same story in different clothing. I might do that
one of these days when I feel like embarking on a
scholarly project, and become the world's
authority, travelling all over the planet to gather
up stories and esoteric lore, off on my own like
would that be?'
most people laugh at. I've always rather liked the
idea of going off to pursue a dream, but when you
get right down to it I'm too practical to do more
than like the idea.'
practical man who rescues mermaids because he feels
sorry for them,' Sylvie said, carefully
straightening and raising her tail. Dryden was
hoisted out of the water, hugging the end of it,
looking rather startled. She smiled at him, pleased
with what she could do.
freakishly strong,' he said, dripping.
perfectly normal for me. I'm just getting back to
normal. It's all lower-body, anyway. My top half's
not that strong.' She remembered something she had
meant to say. 'And it's all wrong according to
fairy-tale rules, as far as I can see, unless you
want to consider yourself a sleeping beauty, in
which case you should have been transformed by
my kissing you. So there!'
no, I admit I haven't been transformed, and I don't
expect to be. And it's more like your
transformation is getting undone, so you get to be
yourself again. I think it's nicer that way, don't
you? Neither of us is changing their life, in fact
you're going back to what your life should be
before it got changed for you. Without wanting to
sound nasty, can we be clear about one thing? When
I talk about you being my girlfriend, I mean just
for fun, not a long-term attachment. Just while
we're together, because it will be nice, and then
say goodbye with a smile. Is that what you have in
mind too? Or are you going to dash me off into the
water and slap me with your fins?'
think that sounds absolutely ideal,' Sylvie agreed.
'It really isn't practical to think about any
long-term attachment, even if we did feel that way.
I do fancy you, but I just fancy you. Since
I'm with you anyway, jolly good. I think I'm going
to enjoy you. And then I'll get to go back to my
family, and you can go on with your business and
your books, and we'll both live happily ever
felt immensely relieved. She did not have to be a
possession after all; she had a choice about
lending her heart for a while, and it would be
returned to her in its original condition. Affairs
like this were not at all unusual at home, although
they had not hitherto been a feature of her own
life. Most life-partnerships among the sea-people
were based not upon any idea of romantic love, but
upon a longstanding friendship which seemed likely
to be a sustainable and satisfactory partnership.
That was how it was with Melamy and Tanamil. In
fact, the feeling of falling in love was regarded
as the exact opposite of a reason for entering into
any sort of contract. If the object of your
affection felt the same way, it meant you were
going to have an extremely nice time for a while,
until it wore off, and part with no regrets. If
they did not, you might feel rather blue for a
while, but that would wear off too, especially when
someone better came along. It was an easy system
that everyone understood, and the fact that
drylanders appeared to regard this sort of
arrangement as quite deviant was often cited as
more evidence of their instability and general
self-destructive bent. Falling in with a drylander
who understood ... and who was, in addition, funny,
good-looking and kind ... seemed the best kind of
mermaid system was also not at all like the casual
way most masters had wanted to possess her, because
what the average drylander seemed to fail to
understand was that the affection and tenderness
involved were genuine. A feeling did not have to be
deep to be real. Water was water, whether it was a
foot or a fathom, and a rockpool was often warmer
than an ocean.
you have ever tried to make love, in a half-full
bathtub, with a girl who is obliged to keep the
back of her neck underwater in order not to
asphyxiate, you will know that it is quite awkward,
and occasionally fairly uncomfortable, but in the
end truly worthwhile.
you've probably never done that. It's a fairly
unique experience, limited to a very privileged
minority. So never mind.
illustration by Didodikali.