Dryden and Sylvie - Chapter Three

It 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 sharks.

After 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.

'I 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.

'Isn't this normal for you?' she asked him. 'You seem to think it ought to take longer.'

'I 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 unfortunate kipper.

'Perhaps I don't wish to be figured out,' Sylvie said stiffly. 'I'm not here for you to study.'

'No, 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.

'How 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. Why?'

'It 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.

'All 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 not to.'

'I 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 that?'

'I 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.'

'Fish is very good for you,' Sylvie said, with dignity.

'Of 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.

'That's awful,' Sylvie told him severely, trying not to smile, with limited success.

'Did you go to school? In the sea, I mean? Do you have written language down there, and history?'

'Of 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 stories.'

'I'd love to meet him,' Dryden said. 'I hope you'll introduce me to your family when I take you home.'

'No 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.'

'And 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 them.'

Unfortunately, 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.

'Don't 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.

'Trying 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 ideograms.'

'And if I could read them myself you wouldn't have to read to me,' she said.

'No, 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 yourself?'

'It's 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 better.'

The lessons went well. Dryden blew off most of his business for that day, leaving her only when he really had to.

'You pick things up very quickly when you're making the effort,' he said. 'You really are smart. I'll have to try raw fish.'

'Tell me if I've got this right,' Sylvie said, holding up her slate. 'Is this how to write your name?'

'It's 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 ai.'

'Your 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.'

'There 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.'

'What's the Phantom Moon?'

'Have 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.'

'Oh ... but we don't call that the Phantom Moon. It's the Blue Pearl.'

'That's pretty. Do you like pearls?'

'They're 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.

'You 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 moving.

'The 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.

'That's 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 people?'

'If you've got such a social conscience,' Sylvie asked, 'why are you going around massing up wealth?'

'Means 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.'

'Why 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.

'I 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.'

He 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?'

'No,' 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.'

'No, 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 dragon, nowadays.'

'There 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.'

'Ah, 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?'

'No,' 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.

In 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.

She 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 laughed.

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.

The 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.

As 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 narrow-hipped.

What 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.

She 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 bed.

She 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 already!'

Sylvie 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.

'Is 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.

'It was an accident,' she said. 'I slipped over.'

'Oh,' 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.'

A 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.

'I'm 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.

Sylvie counted in her head, trying to make sure it was enough to be worth his while. One, two, three, four, five… 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.

'It 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 thing.

'Doesn't 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?'

While 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 formality.

Dryden let her have her mouth back again. 'What are you thinking, with that funny look on your face?' he asked, sounding slightly breathless.

'That 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.

'Can I take that to mean that I'm your new boyfriend?' he said hopefully. Sylvie panicked.

'I 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 oxygenated.

The 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.

'Have I upset you?' he asked. 'I didn't want to. I thought you knew I liked you.'

Sylvie flipped her fins away from him.

Dryden 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 or not.'

Sylvie raised her head from the bathtub and stared at him through dripping curtains of turquoise hair. He had put on his windows, shiny smartass glass.

'I can't believe you,' she said.

'What?' He looked surprised, and put one hand on his heart in a mock-innocent wounded gesture. 'Is any of that untrue?'

'You're not supposed to say it!'

'I 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.'

'You're 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 fault.'

'I 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 businessman.'

'I'll 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 bothered.

'Can 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.'

Sylvie 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 fingers interlocked.

'To be fair to you,' she said, 'I should say that I wasn't feeling at all that way about you until you kissed me.'

'You kissed me.'

'Well, you kissed back.'

'In 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 kisses.'

'You're 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.

'You still kissed me first, so why did you decide you wanted to do that if you didn't think you fancied me?'

'I 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.

'Did you really think I'd be that upset about a soggy Charivari?'

'Men get angry about funny things. I didn't want to be punished.'

'Well,' 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 enough, but… look, did you really think I'd lose it over something like that? Do you really not trust me at all?'

'Couldn't 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 fight.'

'It sounds like the same again,' he complained. 'Appeasement tactics. You'd do well in politics right now.'

'What do you mean?' Sylvie asked, a little grateful for the diversion.

'Oh…' 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 of Fanelia?'

'No,' Sylvie admitted.

'Nor 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… all right, they were vulnerable, but that isn't a motive for the attack in itself.'

'Is it politics?' Sylvie asked. 'You said something about politics.'

'Well, 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 gods.'

'Is that how you'd like it to be?' Sylvie said.

'I 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.'

'And 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.

'Well, 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 not.'

'Will it be dangerous for you if there is a war?'

'Oh, 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?'

Sylvie 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?'

'No trouble,' said Dryden, getting to his feet. He stooped to pick her up, and Sylvie hooked her arm around his neck to keep steady.

'Isn't 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 ceiling.

'There 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.

It 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 mouth… close your eyes and count to ten… and I fall into an ocean of you… no, 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.

Having 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.

'Don't 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.

'I think I can look at whatever I like, since you admit to looking at my breasts.'

'Ah, 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?'

'No,' 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.'

'Unless 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.'

'We do not,' Sylvie defended her people.

'No, you just don't help them.'

'We 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 people's breasts.'

'I 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.'

'A what?'

'A bathing suit.'

'You 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 nasty?'

'Ah, 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.'

Sylvie frowned. 'So you were looking at me to work out why I wasn't fat?'

'No, I was looking at you because you're beautiful.' He grinned sunnily. 'And I like that mauvy colour when you blush.'

'Oh, shut up.'

'But it's extremely becoming. It's exactly right with the colour of your hair. But enough about you, what do you think of me?'

'What do you want me to say?'

'Well, I suppose I want to give you an opportunity to get your own back.'

Sylvie 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 at Dryden.

'I am going to be completely honest, you know.'

'Please do.'

'Actually, can I ask one thing first? How old are you?'

'I was twenty-one in Yellow. Key of the door, etcetera.'

'Do I need to get you a birthday present this year?'

'No, it's already been Yellow. I'll show you a drylanders' calendar.'

'You're only two years older than me.'

'Do I need to get you a birthday present this year?'

'Not 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.'

'Well, 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 babbling.'

'Actually, you are just babbling,' Sylvie assured him, and smiled broadly. 'You were expecting me to criticise your bristles again, weren't you?'

Dryden's eyebrows lifted in surprise. 'You little minx,' he said.

'I also like your eyebrows. Can I have a better look?'

'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.

Sylvie plucked the glasses off Dryden's nose and scudded away backwards through the water, holding them high.

'Got your windows!'

He straightened up with a bellow of indignation.

'Hey! I need those to see!'

'You do not. You look over the tops of them half the time.'

'Well, 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 size.

'Wugh!' she exclaimed. 'They'd give me a headache!'

'Are 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 back.'

'Do you think they suit me?' Sylvie asked, tipping the glasses to the end of her nose and looking at him over the rims.

'Yes, very cute. What happened to being afraid of making me angry?'

'Don't 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.

'I 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 tailfin.

'Right!' said Dryden, arriving with a splash and catching Sylvie's wrists. 'Give 'em back.'

'I 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 depths.

'And the thing of it is,' Dryden said quietly, 'I really do need those.'

'Sorry,' 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 triumphantly.

'Caught them before they hit the bottom,' she said. 'No harm done, so can you forgive a merminx?'

'Are you going to make a habit of dropping my possessions in the water?'

'Not a habit. It'll be spontaneous every time.'

'Why 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.

'It's 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.

'I'm 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.

'It's 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 again.

'Are you all right?' Dryden asked. 'Am I actually having a dangerous effect on you? I don't want to make you that breathless.'

'I'll 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 gasping.

'That's how mermaids drown men, then,' he managed to say. 'You make us want to stay down there with you, and we can't.'

'What if I breathed air into your mouth? I can do that. It would be like blowing bubbles. Little heart-shaped bubbles, popping on your lips.'

'I 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.'

'Please come under the water again. I want to see how you look with your hair floating. I'd like to see you underwater properly.'

'You know… 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 underwater.'

'Well, come and fly with me.' Sylvie tugged eagerly on his arms.

'You know I can't. I never even got my bronze swimming certificate at school. I swim like you walk, sweetie.'

'Perhaps you'd better get out,' Sylvie said, reluctantly.

'Are you throwing me out? Please don't be throwing me out, this was so nice.'

'No. I just don't want you to feel like I'm drowning you. It's an awful way to feel.'

'I 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 safe.

'Are you laughing at me, miss merminx?' Dryden asked with mock severity.

'I'm honestly not.'

'Oh yes you are.' There was a chuckle in his voice already.

'I'm 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 hair.'

'I 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 smiling.

'It's 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.'

'Really? 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.

'I read some of those the other night,' Sylvie said. 'What's a grown man like you doing with books of nursery stories?'

'I 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 Loopy Schezar.'

'Who would that be?'

'Someone 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.'

'The 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.

'You're freakishly strong,' he said, dripping.

'I'm 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!'

'Well, 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?'

'I 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 after.'

She 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 serendipity.

The 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.


If 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.


But you've probably never done that. It's a fairly unique experience, limited to a very privileged minority. So never mind.


Sweet illustration by Didodikali.

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