Dryden and Sylvie - Chapter Five

Sylvie swam up to take the air, her hair neatly knotted. When she passed an attractive stand of Neptune's necklace, she took clusters to tuck into the coils of the bun. She had been keeping herself bare as though it could still please Dryden. He would not even be thinking of her any more. It was foolish and useless to keep wanting him like this. Knowing that did not help one bit. The fact was inescapable ... she was miserable. She was missing him.

Sylvie sat on a rock in Beidurl Cove, one of the large slant-stacked flat slabs of pinkish grey stone where she had basked many times with her sisters, with her tail doubled in front of her and her arms hooked around the curve of it. The sun was weak and watery today, although she did not really feel the chill.

I need to be sensible about this, she told herself. I need to think about it clearly, and understand the situation before I decide anything about it. I'm sure that's why it's gone wrong, that I didn't understand the situation before ... I assumed too quickly that I knew all about it, because there was an easy answer.

I've given it plenty of time to wear off, I really have. Perhaps I haven't tried as hard to take my mind off him with other things as I should have, but I just can't think of anything. Or rather, I keep thinking of things like, oh, I'll read a Charivari, that will cheer me up. All the things I think would take my mind off him are part of my idea of him. All the things I like best now are part of him. I used to always enjoy rereading my favourite books about once a year each, but they don't even look interesting to me any more. I never even really scratched the surface of his library, and I don't just want to read all his books, I want to talk about them with him, and know what he thinks about what's in the book, as well as what the book says. Without him involved it would be like water without salt.

And I miss him. I miss how sweet and kissy he is when he's sleepy and just wants to curl up together. I miss him making very, very bad jokes and waggling his eyebrows at me. I miss him stealing food off my plate and feeding me from his hand and watching me read because he wanted to try to read my face… I miss just knowing how much he liked me. I miss how important I used to feel because he would steal an extra half-hour with me before starting work. I miss being special to someone so special.

The wind changed direction and an escaping tendril of hair blew smartingly into the corner of her eye.

Before I get all lovey about it I have to remember that he doesn't feel this way about me. We were both very clear about that, and it's too much to hope for that he might have had a change of heart like me. If he had he would have come to find me. That's what Dryden would do.

Perhaps I should go to find him.

Go to find Dryden, and tell him how she felt. It seemed like the only reasonable plan, the only alternative to drifting drearily at home for the rest of her life. It didn't do any good to think about how she would feel or what she would do if he rejected her, however kindly, so she didn't. Perhaps it would change things. Perhaps she could work some kind of magic-kiss trick again. Or perhaps when she explained what she was coming to believe he would come around to her way of seeing it ... that they had accidentally come up with a hybrid of the human ideal of romantic love, and the mer-concept of affectionate partnership. It didn't have to be as difficult to handle as the first, although it would be more demanding than the second, because on each side it contained a little of the other. It might make them both happy. There was no way of knowing for sure that he wouldn't like the idea. Therefore it had to be worth a try.

Sylvie felt happy with how she had reasoned it out; she felt better still to have made a decision and formed a plan. The only daunting thought now was how in the world she was to find one man, who moved around constantly, on a whole continent where she could no more walk than she could fly.


The first step was simple enough. She knew his family lived in Pallas, the capital of Asturia. She would go there, and make enquiries. It should be possible to do without being taken by slavers again, now she knew how that worked, and if necessary she could simply tell them that they could not sell her because she already belonged to Dryden Fassa. Then they would have to get in touch with him about it and that would lead her to him too.

It would not do to discuss it with her family, because they would certainly not understand or approve. She made some simple, careful preparations, putting a few favourite and necessary things in a small bag she could easily carry on her back, and wrote a short, straightforward letter in which she explained what she was doing and why, assuring her family that she still loved them very much, but would never feel right if she did not try to settle this matter. Her pencil shook rather as she wrote the words, but she kept her resolve firm.

It was a long way to Pallas, and she knew the direction only vaguely as somewhere to keep away from. You just didn't go to a big centre of human population. You'd have to be crazy. Sylvie slipped out of her family's home range while the others slept, reassuring herself that she was perfectly rational, just following a series of steps to get to her desired goal. To try and make it seem less frightening, she thought of it as The Quest For The Spotted Sausage. That sounded so completely silly that there was no way it could intimidate her… except when she remembered that she had thought it meant something impossible, unattainable.

She was some days travelling, and more than once she was lonely enough to seriously consider going home and trying to find some other way. But each time she managed to make up her mind to go a bit further before she made up her mind about anything else, and after a few times of doing that she had gotten so far along that it was surely more worthwhile to keep going than go all that long way back. She had to be careful to avoid many hazards, whether the natural predators of the sea or the manmade intrusion of fishing nets and lines.

On one occasion she got a terrible fright when she swam into a finely-made gillnet that she did not see ahead of her, but one of the things in her small bag was a good sharp knife, and after some effort she cut her way out, pausing along the way to assist a very small dolphin who had gotten caught up in the same way. The fishermen who set these nets did not even want dolphins, and would just discard its body when they pulled it up. It was almost suffocating, having held its breath nearly to the limit, and in such a panic that it fought against her efforts to disentangle it, with the result that she accidentally gave it a couple of small cuts, and it bit her painfully on the hand before thrashing its way out of the tattered net and shooting up to the surface for a much-needed draught of fresh air. Sylvie glared after it resentfully, and made a few choice remarks in dolphin language concerning its mother's moral character.

'Oh, fine, you take all the glory for rescuing swimmers and looking good that way, but if anyone tries to help you you…' She realised that she was not exactly making sense, but she still felt that it had been very poor form on the dolphin's part to bite her. Besides, now there was blood in the water and any sharks who happened to be nearby would be sure to come sniffing around. She left that place as quickly as she could, passing the recovering dolphin as it rested near the surface and making a certain gesture with her good hand as she went.

Several times she came to a fishing village or coastal town and had to spend some time hanging around among docks and jetties, keeping out of sight, before she could overhear enough conversation to ascertain that she was not yet at Pallas. She always hated doing that, because she felt so terribly unsafe in amongst the swinging ropes and swaying hulls of anchored boats, and harbour water felt so bad on her skin, but it was good practice, she told herself sternly, and kept on.

One night she realised from what she heard two fishermen say that the next place she reached along the coastline had to be Pallas. It gave her a jolt to realise that the goal might be in sight now, or at least the approach to the goal. She did not hang around to rest there, but swam through the night. Pallas came into view along with the rising of the sun. It was the biggest human place she had ever seen, as sprawling as the submarine city of Aramoana, a great white network of buildings backing onto hills and mingling with the ocean through its maze of canals. It made her nervy just to look at it, but she reminded herself of the Spotted Sausage, wished she had not thought of such a dumb joke because by now she was really tired of it, and made for the sea-docks.

Sylvie spent the next few days haunting the area of Pallas known as the Pearl Docks. It was a dingy, low-rent area where people took care of business as and when they had to. She was simply reconnoitring, getting her bearings now that she had arrived. Until now the only information she had listened to with any care was what she would need to get to Pallas, but now she opened her ears to everything and what she heard truly alarmed her.

Apparently the humans were having some sort of imbroglio that was working its way up to a full-on war. Zaibach was continuing to behave in an aggressive and mystifying manner, and there had been fighting in Pallas itself, despite the treaties. The new young king of Fanelia was making a real nuisance of himself, there were bad omens in the sky, there were lunatics going around setting fire to stuff and no-one knew what to expect next. Some sort of big public wedding, she was unclear about whose because everyone discussing it knew it so well that they did not need to quote names or places, had been crashed by Zaibach soldiers and a lot of damage had been done.

He said he'd be all right, she told herself firmly. Dryden would never be the sort of person to hang around where he might get hurt to no good purpose, and if he got involved in a war it would be on the strategic side, surely. She had no time to spare thinking about the war itself, its causes and likely outcome. Those were human affairs; besides, she couldn't hope to understand them with the little she knew of what had come before. She had to talk to someone who lived here and get a clearer view of events, not to mention try to find out where, for example, Dryden's family residence was. Surely it would be possible to get a message to him that way. He might even have come home because of the trouble.

In the end Sylvie approached the kindest-looking person she could find. The people you saw in the Pearl Docks were not always inviting, although of course a lot of them were soliciting. She had seen and heard enough to send her opinion of sailors plunging to new lows, and felt a keen sympathy for the men and women who got their living by providing them with the kind of favours that had been demanded of her in the past. Just because she had some fellow-feeling for them did not mean they were the sort of people with whom she wished to strike up a conversation. But some of the older prostitutes had an almost motherly look about them, and she had had her eye on one of them for a while now, a woman of perhaps forty years whose chief business asset was a vast pillowy bosom, offset by sharp grey eyes that suggested she was far cleverer than she needed to be for her line of work. She was around most nights, sometimes having to hang around for a long time before she found anyone who wished to come home with her. It was not that she was unappealing, but there were many much younger girls (and boys) on offer, and the lowest common denominator went there.

One late, moonless evening when the woman she had been watching was sitting a little wearily on a bollard, giving her feet a rest from their fashionable shoes, Sylvie swam close to the dockside and flicked some water at her from her fingertips. At first she did not notice it. A second spattering seemed to annoy her, but she thought it was only a spitting of rain. A third made her realise that the water was coming up from below, not down from above, and caused her to look curiously over the side of the dock.

'Hello,' said Sylvie. The woman's eyes widened considerably. She had clearly never in her life expected to be addressed by a mermaid from the oily waters around the Pearl Docks of Pallas, and fair enough too.

'Hello,' she said, and Sylvie admired how she was keeping her composure in spite of everything. 'Who might you be?'

'My name is Sylvie.'

'Mine is Marimay.' The woman looked over her shoulders to see if there was anyone about, found that she was alone, and knelt down to get a better look. 'What in the world are you doing there? I thought ones like you never came near a place with so many boats and people. Much less talked to people and introduced themselves! Am I imagining something to keep myself company on a bad night?'

'No,' said Sylvie, 'although I'm sorry you're having a bad night. I could give you something to make it up to you.' From her bag she carefully took a black pearl. It was one of the ones her mother kept in a glass vase to hold the stems of decorative weeds she arranged in it. Sylvie had pinched a few because she knew they were valuable on land for more than visual charm. It was not, she thought, especially big, perhaps half an inch in diameter. Marimay's eyes bulged and her jaw dropped.

'That's never real!'

'It's as real as I am. If I gave you this, you could have a holiday from your job, couldn't you?'

'Not half!'

'And then you would be free to help me with something, wouldn't you?'

'Just what do you want?' Marimay's eyes narrowed again. 'I'm not taking anything until I know what you want for it. And there's things I won't do, whatever you're offering. That's too much for you to be up to any good.'

'I don't want to hire you for anything,' Sylvie assured her hastily. 'And it is something good, really, or harmless, anyway. I need someone to explain some things to me, and not run around telling people about me, or sell me to slavers, or put me in a fishbowl. I thought I could trust you for that because you understand about people buying you. You wouldn't put someone into that against their will, would you?'

'No,' Marimay conceded. 'Well. It's not as if I'm busy tonight anyway. You tell me what you want to know and I'll decide if telling you is worth that shiner. First time I ever saw a pearl that size on the Pearl Docks.'

Sylvie settled herself in a comfortable floating posture and began to tell the story. It took much longer than she had anticipated, partly because Marimay was such a good listener that she kept thinking of more to say. It was a relief to tell the whole thing to someone who had no emotional investment in how the story turned out, and would not be wanting her to reach a certain conclusion. The occasional denizen of the docks passed by, but no-one seemed to notice a woman apparently kneeling and talking to the water. You could be a lot stranger than that in the Pearl Docks and not impress people. At first, it was also a relief to Sylvie that Marimay offered no opinions on the story, but after a while she began to wonder exactly what she thought, and why she was reserving her judgement.

'So do you think I was very foolish to make that sort of arrangement?' she asked eventually, when she had brought the other woman well up to date on the situation.

'I don't know about foolish. I think perhaps you were both a little too clever for your own good ... sharp enough to cut yourself, as my nan used to say.' Marimay tightened the belt of her coat. It was a good piece of clothing, well-cut, but very old and much repaired. 'And if you've come looking for information to help you find your Dryden… I'm afraid I know what you want to know, but you may not like it much when you hear it. Try not to be too upset.'

'Why?' Sylvie caught hold of the greasy woodwork of the dock and pulled herself up a little way, a feeling of constriction seizing her heart. 'Have you heard of him before? Has something bad happened to him?'

'Yes, I've heard of him, love ... he's been in the news lately, you might say. You said you'd heard about the wedding that was ruined by those terrible Zaibach flying giants, but you didn't know much more about it. That was your Dryden's wedding. He's married to the Crown Princess, Millerna. He's helping run the country in the state of emergency. I believe he got hurt when they attacked the wedding, but he's getting better. The King really needs him and apparently he adores his wife. You mustn't take it to heart too much, but I really don't think he'll be overjoyed to see you now.'

'He got married?' Sylvie was not upset yet; she was still too astonished to react. 'When did he meet her? When did he have time to decide he wanted to get married?'

'It had all been arranged for years, pet. They were engaged to each other when they were children. Their parents organised it. And before you say something like "but why didn't he tell me," he probably honestly didn't think it was important. Men are like that. They don't feel the way we do. Well, I say we, but I suppose I've got more in common with you, us both being women, than we've got different with you being a mermaid. Unless it's true what they say and you don't have hearts.'

'It's souls,' Sylvie said, numbly. 'They say we haven't got souls.'

'I remember my nan telling me a story about that,' Marimay said thoughtfully. 'About a mermaid who fell in love with a prince from the land, and saved his life, and gave her voice to a sea-witch so she could walk on land and try to get him to fall in love with her, but she never got through to him and he married a princess and she threw herself into the sea to turn into foam. But she didn't, she turned into a sort of half-way angel who would get to have a proper soul and go to heaven if children would be very good and sort of score points for her.' She paused reminiscently. 'I always hated that story.'

'I should think so,' said Sylvie fervently. 'It sounds like the most appalling anti-mermaid propaganda.' Her voice sounded strange in her ears, high and tight. He knew all along that he was going to get married to someone else. That was why he didn't want a long-term attachment. I know we said it would be convenient, I know I wanted it to be convenient, but it all sounds so damn' calculating now! Did he have any real feelings about me or was it something he turned on and off like a lamp?

'Well, I didn't like it because it wasn't fair to blackmail us like that,' said Marimay. 'You know, make you feel guilty about doing some little thing because it meant the little mermaid would be stuck half-way for another year. The number of things I've had to do in my life, that poor old mermaid would never see heaven if it were true.' She sighed, looking at Sylvie's stricken expression, shakily illuminated by a gas-lamp hanging from a pole above them. 'I can see you're surprised. Have you not had much to do with men before?' She adjusted the belt of her coat again, settling to make a big speech of her own.

'I'm not saying they're all bad. They're not. I don't know if bad is even the word for when they do things like this. They just don't understand how they hurt you. They don't see it. They'd be honestly surprised if you told them, and some of them would be sorry. But you can't depend on them. Even if they love you. It sounds to me as though he did love you. And now he loves his princess. Maybe a bit of him still loves you, but it's not the bit he's using right now.

'I didn't use to be always a poor old slapper down here in the docks, you know. I was a pretty little courtesan and they knew me in all the best places. I can't help taking a sort of interest because you know, his father kept me for a while, when he was a younger man. Meiden Fassa. I never did like him. He treated people like things. Nice things, maybe, things he thought were worth a fair bit, but that was the only reason he thought anything of them. He liked me because I made other people envious. It's a funny coincidence, isn't it? Father and son, for you and me, and then I'm the one you come asking? But I've been kept by a lot of men, 'cos I could never really keep myself. You're lucky he didn't want to keep you.'

'He's not like his father. He doesn't want to be like his father,' Sylvie whispered. She leant her face against the cold dank wood of the jetty pile she clung to. There were little crusty things living on it; she felt them under her cheek.

'I'm sure he's not,' Marimay said soothingly. 'I'm sure he's very nice or you wouldn't feel this way. But he is a man, and even the nice ones are still what they are. I heard once where there's some wise men, philosophers, that say it's all women that haven't got souls. I say it's just we haven't got the same kind as them so they don't know them when they see them.' She shot a little smile at Sylvie, who was looking surprised at the depth of this observation. 'Well, you get a lot of time to think in my line. You stare up at the stars and the deep thoughts just kind of come.'

'I… I don't know what I'm going to do now.' Sylvie closed her eyes, pressing her cheek harder against the nasty wood, feeling the little hard creatures dig into her skin. They might cut her. They might give her a skin infection. She would probably cry soon. Again. She bit her lip.

'You be sensible, love. Go home to your family, and wait till you feel better, because you really will if you give it long enough. Don't make the mistake I did, because long ago I thought the thing to do was get hooked up with another man as quick as possible, and it set me on a bad path. You wait till you feel all right by yourself before you start thinking about anyone else.'

'Even if I went and found him… he wouldn't want to talk to me, would he? Or if he did it'd only be because I insisted.'

'And ... although you might not think of it right away ... it wouldn't be fair to his wife, would it? I'm sure she wouldn't like to know there was someone else so soon before her, and there's the thing, he won't have told her about you, not because he's ashamed of it, but because he won't think it's important.'

'I ... I was important to him.'

'Oh, not that you weren't important. He just won't think it's important for her to know. He'd probably say it's got nothing to do with her, the same as him being engaged had nothing to do with you.'

'I just can't believe Dryden would… no, I suppose I can believe that. I could see when we were saying goodbye…' Sylvie's voice died for a little while. 'What am I going to do for the rest of my life?'

'What were you going to do anyway?'

'I don't know… I thought I might be a teacher, or work in the city library… I don't know.'

'Well, you go on and do that.' There was little room for sentiment in Marimay's tired eyes, but her voice was kind. 'You've still got lots of good chances in life, and one day chances are you'll look back and wonder why you ever thought this was such a milestone. And frankly, you're well out of it down there in the sea. I don't know what's going to happen up here but they're expecting big, full-on battle any time now. We just have to hope for the best.'

'If… if Zaibach win… Zaibach are the enemy, right?'


'They might kill Dryden because he's a leader, mightn't they?'

'I don't know. I don't know if they're that kind of people. I don't know anything about them, really, except they're bastards for what they did to our downtown with their flamethrowers. I had a friend got burned, all one side of her face. She can't work now. Scars are a bad thing for a woman.' Marimay redirected her thoughts to Sylvie's problem. 'Just go home. It's not your business any more. You're going to be all right. You can believe in that.' She got to her feet again, a little stiffly from kneeling so long, and brushed the dirt from her skirt. 'I have to be going, but I'm glad I talked to you. It's nice to know there's a world they can't touch. Unless they invent melefs that will go under the sea, and I wouldn't put it past them, so you tell your friends to be on the lookout. Goodnight, Sylvie, Jeture bless ... you'll be all right.' She walked away.

Sylvie slid down the piling, letting the oily harbour water embrace her. Everything was worse than ever. Surely this should set her free, in a way, but it made her feel incapable of doing anything. If nothing else, she was sure she did not want to stay in this harbour. It depressed her beyond words. She had seen a nice-looking bay just round a headland on her way here, and she could rest there while she gathered her thoughts. Going there was something to do, anyway. She thought if she did not give herself something to do she might do nothing, even forget to breathe.

When she got there she did nothing for some time, nothing except cry, lying quietly on the warm damp sand where the little lacy waves rolled in. Then she did nothing at all, lying with her cheek pressed to the beach's bosom, looking with unseeing eyes at a small red shell a few inches from her face. She lay like that while the tide rose and fell, and did not feel hunger or thirst, having slipped into a grieving catatonia. No-one saw her. No-one came near. It could have been hours that she lay there, or it could have been days.

At some time, she heard a terrible distant sound, and she knew it was battle. The tears began to well again, as though their ducts were little automatic pumps that would go on even when she had passed through pain into numbness. Somewhere men were fighting, killing, dying, somewhere women were praying for fathers and husbands and brothers and sons to come home alive, somewhere mouths screamed blood and cried for mother. There had never been war under the sea on the scale that there was on land. She had read about some of the battles in Dryden's books and they had chilled her; at the time she had taken great comfort in the thought that soon she would be safely home and would never have to worry about things like that. But now she had a stake in it, an investment as Dryden might like to think of it. Dryden might be fighting. Would he? Would he be any good? Was it the sort of war where they were so desperate they took anyone healthy, whether they had any training or not? Or was he in a planning room somewhere, pushing counters around on a map, or trying to make a calming speech from a balcony to panicked people? Was he already dead? He had been recently hurt, Marimay had said, he could be weak, and her mind filled with awful images of brown hair plastered down with blood, sticky ragged wounds and split-open joints, eyes glazed like dead cold water.

Sylvie found herself remembering how often, when someone died, people lamented that they had had no opportunity to say goodbye. She had said goodbye, but now she took it back with all her heart. It meant that she had no further claim on Dryden, no right to cry if he fell, to know where he lay buried, to water his grave with her freshwater tears; she would not be his widow, and the way things were she bitterly envied this Millerna who would have all those rights as part and parcel of her grief.

He may not be dead, she reminded herself fiercely. You have no way of knowing. Everything on land is uncertain. You mustn't go thinking like this when you don't know, you'll jinx him. He could even be hiding out somewhere, avoiding all the unpleasantness, clever and cowardly. He'll emerge when the noise stops and sell bandages to the survivors at a premium. Would he? No, not my Dryden, please not my Dryden.

Sylvie struggled up, pushing herself with her arms, looking up at the land beyond the bay, wishing she could see anything more informative than a small sward of grass petering out into the sand, and a path leading away into pretty feathery trees. Dark clouds were boiling in the sky but no rain was falling where she was. They were writhing and piling towards a point somewhere far away, rushing in from the sea to the heart of the warring land. A light went up, a bright, blinding blue-white light, reflecting off the clouds, and Sylvie flinched at the sight. It was unnatural, and that was its horror; a second later a thunderous noise reached her and she fell back on the sand, hands over her pointed ears, screaming but unable to hear herself over the report. Her heart drummed wildly and her rusty breathing escalated to a constant high asphyxiating wheeze, admitting no air to her locked-up lungs.

Everything in the world is wrong! Nothing should do that! I don't know where Dryden is and I can't help him and I won't know what happens to him and things like that could be killing him right now! I would do anything to be with him, but not like this, not like I am, not so I'd always need him to carry me and change my water. I want to look after him. Please… if anyone cares… if anyone can hear me, let me change, take my tail and fins and give me legs and feet, make me sound in wind and limb, let me be a mermaid who walks on land and finds her love and saves him! It's all I want. He's all I want!

On the borders of the Zone of Absolute Fortune, this desperate wish burst open, and Sylvie felt that something burst within her too. She felt that she was being torn in two, lengthways, filletted; her blood boiled and melted her flesh and in that molten, malleable state it took on new form. Terrible white light filled her mind till it seemed it must stream out of her eyesockets, burning them from within, but nothing could burn out the image of Dryden that she saw every time her eyes closed. She reached out to that image, to that smile and that embrace, straining against pain, not daring to be weak when he needed her.

Abruptly, the tearing, splitting pain was gone. Sylvie gasped, then gasped again, then realised she could take a proper, deep breath with no trouble. There was no catch in her lungs, no whistle or wheeze. She was breathing fast and hard but with depth and strength. And she felt entirely different from the waist down. Before turning to look, she tried to move her tail, tried to bend it upwards, and found that the old flexing movement of a long, limber appendage would not do. There was one large joint on each side, and that was where she could bend. On each side. Two joints. Two knees, she realised. She pushed herself up on her elbows and craned round, rolling as she did so. She turned right over, sitting on the sand and staring down at this foreign body that was hers.

Two long, thin legs, pale as the skin of her arms, tapering down to neat, narrow feet. They were splayed before her; her gaze ran up from wide-divided ankles to half-flexed knees to softly-meeting thighs. She was sitting on her very own brand-new bottom. She could feel the sand underneath. In rolling, she had sat down on a small stone that was pressing uncomfortably into her left buttock. She could feel her legs all over, feel with their covering skin, and when she moved, feel the pull and flex of the muscles within. They were a wonder to her.

Sylvie carefully put her hands on her knees, as though to make sure the whole arrangement was not an illusion that would dissolve at a touch. There is hardly anything more reliably real and ordinary than a plain human knee.

'My wish was granted,' she said aloud. It was reassuring to hear a friendly voice at a time like this, even if it was only her own. 'I prayed and it worked.' That was an unnerving notion for someone who had never thought too hard about the state of her soul, beyond a certainty that she had one and was looking after it quite nicely by herself, thank you very much, without requiring any sort of divine assistance. It was not that she did not believe any gods existed, just that as far as she was concerned they should be taking care of the people who needed it and not bothering her.

She realised with a little jolt that right then, she had been one of the people who needed help, and that now she had been given it she had no more excuse to lie around on beaches crying. If God or whoever helped you, it put you under an obligation to start helping yourself, or they would have a perfect right to take their gift back again.

'I'll have to get up on my own two feet and jolly well do something,' she said firmly. Getting up was not easy. It took some time and concentration to get her legs under herself, and a surprising exertion to stand up on them. As soon as she was upright she sat down again very sharply. Obviously balance was going to be an issue. Perhaps she should start with something midway. Human babies went on all fours before they learned to walk properly; Dryden had had to explain that to her when she didn't get the Sphinx's riddle. It would not be that different from how she sometimes pulled herself around with her arms, her hindquarters humping along like a caterpillar. She tied her bag on her back as she had done while swimming, so it would not get in her way.

Crawling was much more successful, once she had worked out that you got the best results by moving the legs separately, putting the right knee forward at the same time as the left hand. It was a bit rough on the hands and knees to crawl on sand, but it was working, and she felt pretty proud of herself. If she could crawl, surely she could walk, with a bit of patience and practice. And her breathing was wonderful, smooth and steady as the tide.

It occurred to Sylvie that being naked as a mermaid and being naked as a human were rather different things; you really had to have experienced both to understand why. She did not feel embarrassed about her body, but she also felt strongly that she did not want just anyone she met to be able to see all of it. Particularly men. Distasteful as it was to admit, show most men a reasonably pretty young woman, naked and on all fours, and they would think of only one thing. It annoyed her to have that interpretation put directly onto something that was only a matter of practicality, but there it was. A mermaid's private parts were truly private, nestled low on her belly and covered by a sort of delicate flounce of fishskin, not even noticeable most of the time. Dryden had been surprised. She had no such coverage like this and she could feel the air touching places that would appreciate a little protection from the outside world.

Dryden would probably laugh when she told him about her change of heart on the subject of clothes. Yes, he would laugh, because she was just not going to consider the possiblity that he might not be in any shape to do so. They would have a good laugh about it together. Somehow. Right now the pressing problem was that, whatever the state of her heart, she didn't have any clothes available. She crawled around the bay, looking for anything she could jury-rig into at least some kind of skirt or pants. It was a pretty little bay, and people must use it for sea-bathing, because, providentially, someone had lost or forgotten a brightly-coloured towel. She hadn't seen it at first because it was lying in a heap and covered with sand, but once she had shaken it out vigorously ... kneeling up to do so, as balancing practice ... she had a quite serviceable, if damp, clammy and sandy, towel with which to do as she liked. First she tried wrapping it around her waist like Dryden's skirts, but it seemed hypocritical to cover her bottom half and not her top, so she hitched the whole thing up to under her arms, covering her breasts. It was a big towel and the bottom hem still nearly reached her knees. That was good. A further search of the area turned up a long hair-ribbon, possibly lost by the towel's owner, and ... well, perhaps people enjoyed more than sea-bathing here ... a pair of women's underpants. Sylvie was certainly not prepared to put on the discarded underclothes of a perfect stranger, especially when there were sandhoppers in them, but she did use the ribbon to belt the waist of the towel-dress so it would not gape in the front when she moved, or hang down and get knelt on as she crawled.

Where to go now? There was only one path up from the beach, leading off into those trees. The path was paved with crushed white shells, which, as Sylvie discovered after a few metres, were extremely hard on the knees. She could not go far like this, and the end of the path was not visible among the trees. She tried again to stand up properly, but balance still eluded her and she toppled sideways. This time she caught hold of the trunk of a tree and leant against it, clinging. Its smooth upright support made her feel much more stable. This feeling of being unable to support yourself properly must be why Dryden found it a relief to hang on to her in the water, trusting her to be the stronger one.

Hang on. There was another part to the riddle of the Sphinx ... which, as she had complained to Dryden, wasn't a particularly amusing riddle. At the end of life, a man walks on three legs, using a stick. Three legs would be a good intermediate phase between all-fours and two legs, she thought. She might be getting it out of order but if any Sphinxes felt like complaining they could take that feeling and stuff it up their noses for all she cared. She was on her way to find Dryden. And she could see what looked like a really good, sturdy stick lying on the ground between two trees just a couple of metres away.

It turned out to be half-rotten and snapped when she leant on it, but after a more thorough search she found a dependable one and made her way carefully back to the path. Walking with a stick was still not easy, but if she kept leaning forward and used it as a prop, she could avoid falling over most of the time. It was painfully slow progress for someone used to flying through the sea, but it was progress all the same. She could hardly get over how well she was breathing. The effort of moving like this was making her pant a bit, but she didn't feel dizzy or weak. These legs might be brand new but they were strong and sturdy; when she had a bit of time she would admire them properly. It was a shame that the knees were already a bit dinged and grazed, but they would heal up.

The trees petered out and the path came to an end in someone's back garden. Knowing how territorial drylanders were, it made Sylvie nervous to be there, but there was no-one in sight and she was prepared to explain herself if anyone turned up to challenge her. If they wouldn't accept her explanation, well, perhaps she'd be able to stand up without the stick long enough to thump them with it. The other thing she couldn't get over was how purposeful and determined she suddenly was. If her tail could turn into legs, anything was possible. Hope so strong that it was almost certainty was driving her on.

The house in the garden was quite a small place, probably just a holiday home, and it seemed to be shut up, with bars across its lightly blistered blue-grey shutters. Sylvie stick-walked around it, finding a well, a small open-fronted shed with canoes inside, a swing-set for children to play on and finally a shell-paved driveway. There was her direction. She would get onto a road and follow it until she came to a place where there were people, and there she would get someone to take her to Pallas ... how didn't matter, she would think of how when she got there ... and there she would get someone to direct her to the royal castle, or wherever the Prince and Princess lived, and there she would walk right in ... probably after all the practice of getting there, she would be able to walk all by herself with no stick, but she might carry it just the same, because really this stick was getting to be a friend to her ... and demand to see Dryden. And they would sort something out. The Princess could go whistle. She hadn't gone through all this to get her man. If Dryden wasn't there she would find out where he was and go to him. If he was in any kind of trouble she would help him. If he was sick or hurt she would nurse him. If he was ... she had to stop for a moment, leaning against the small letterbox nailed to the gate at the end of the driveway, and refuse with all her might to cry. He would not be dead. Now that she had her land-legs he would not be dead. It would not make any sense, it would just be too cruel of the universe.

Sylvie took a better grip on her stick and stepped out onto the dry, hard dirt of a country road. She knew generally in which direction Pallas lay from here, and this road seemed to run towards it. Everything was on her side. Even the thunderclouds were clearing, drifting back out towards the sea. The distant echoing racket of battle had been gone for some time, she noticed now that she was less preoccupied and could spare it some attention. She rather thought that it had stopped while she had been teaching herself to crawl. She tightened the ribbon around her waist, made sure the towel was well tucked-in at the top and kept moving.

After a little while she began to sing.

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