Dryden and Sylvie - Chapter Six

Towards the end of the day, it came home to Sylvie exactly how hungry she was. She was still not sure how long she had lain on the beach, but she had not eaten anything for far too long. Her initial rush of optimism had given her strength to start her journey, but optimism cannot fill an empty stomach, and she had reached the stage of being so hungry she felt quite sick. Being a summer's evening, it was still very light, but the sky was beginning to take a golden-red tinge suggestive of sunset, and a voice at the back of her head kept yelling 'I want DINNER!'

She did not know how to find food in the wild; under the sea or at the beach she would have had no trouble, but here in the countryside she didn't know which plants you could eat, where to find any sort of small easily killed animals, whether you had to cook them to eat them ... she didn't even know where to start. Someone would have to give her a meal, and they would probably want her to pay them. She still had the pearls in her bag. With a twinge of guilt, she realised that Marimay had never taken the one she had offered her. Right, she resolved. When I've got this all sorted out I'll find her again and give her two. So all that remained was to find a place where she could buy dinner, and that was proving difficult. There was no-one else on the road, which might be good, because it meant no floods of refugees, which suggested that Asturia was not exactly having its face ground under the jackbooted heel of Zaibach, but who knew? She had gone past what looked like the gates of a few farms, but that had been a few hours ago. Either the bit of land she was walking through was uninhabited, unowned, or it was part of a very big estate, a rich man's park or something.

Her strong land legs were tired and sore, and her feet felt huge and hot enough to cook on. Her grip on the dependable stick had raised a substantial blister on each palm. If she couldn't find anywhere to eat, could she find some safe place to sleep? Did wild animals roam around the Asturian countryside? Would she have to contend with the land equivalents of sharks, with bears (possibly in threes, possibly with some sort of porridge-related grievance) and big bad wolves? Stop thinking like that, she scolded herself. All those fairy-tales have been a bad influence on you.

She kept walking because she could not make up her mind to stop. After a while, in the rosy light of full sunset, she noticed that up ahead was another driveway off the main road, lined by trees and with a substantial stone gate. The tree-lined avenue ran back and behind a hill, but she could see threads of drifting smoke that suggested the chimneys of a big house, like the trembling in the water that told you a thermal vent was near, and thus, probably, a settlement. She forced herself to walk a little faster. She was really getting the hang of it now, depending less and less on the stick, although she was not yet sure she could do without it. It took a couple of minutes to get level with the stone gate, and when she did, she stopped stock-still and gazed at it open-mouthed. Neatly graven into one oblong gatepost were the words FASSA GRANGE. The other one said TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED, or had used to say so before someone had stuck up a card saying JUST SHOUTED AT over the PROSECUTED part. There was some smaller writing under JUST SHOUTED AT. Sylvie looked closer, and fell on her knees to kiss the card, because signed under the block letters was the name 'D. Fassa, esq.' It was his sort of joke. It was his sort of attitude. He must have been here, and recently.

'It's like a sign!' she said aloud, and then had to laugh at herself because it was exactly like a sign, a sign was what it was. Getting shouted at held no terrors for a mermaid who walked around on dry land. Sylvie undid the outside latch of the gate and let herself in.

A large knoll to one side of the carriage-drive actually had a gate-house built into it, which was rather picturesque, but its one small round window was dark and no-one came out of it to see who was walking onto the Grange. Beyond that, the drive stretched on uninterrupted, around that hill. There was a cut-off look to the horizon beyond that made her think the house must have a view of the sea; the road had not taken her far from the coast after all. The drive was made of gravel, which was very unpleasant to walk on barefoot. Surely a black pearl could purchase some good shoes or boots. But perhaps Dryden would have something she could borrow. Perhaps he was in that house right now and would be wonderfully surprised to see her.

Singing rose up in her again, and she began to chant her favourite tune at the top of her lungs. It was wonderful what a noise her joyful anticipation made. It might not be very musical noise, but that didn't matter; it was a sonic extension of how she felt.

'Round the hill and round the hill and round the hill I go,' Sylvie sang, making up her own words for the favourite tune. 'Going to the house, going to the house, here I come, here I come, going to the house.' Here her invention, not particularly inspired, gave out and she reverted to la-dee-dahs as she closed the final distance between herself and the house emerging into view around the curve of the hill. It was a fine old grey stone building; she did not have the architectural vocabulary to know what to call its parts, but she liked the round-topped arches that appeared again and again in windows and doors and the patterns of stonework, and the patterns of leaves and vines cut into the stone itself. The light in the sky was dying and little living lights danced in the house's windows. Sylvie sang a final la-dee-dah chorus on the stone porch before leaning on the door with one blistered hand so she could safely knock on it with the stick held in the other. After doing that she noticed there was a bell-pull, so she gave that a good yank as well, and heard a loud ding-a-ling inside the house. Someone was sure to hear that. She suddenly felt self-conscious about her appearance, about being seen with legs for the first time. Her mother would be appalled.

The door opened and a worried face looked out at her. It was Dryden's little secretary, the harried little rat-man. Sylvie felt a great beaming smile break out on her face. She would have tried to hug him if that had not entailed letting go of her stick and probably collapsing into the front hall.

'Hello… hello, you dear old thing!' she said, realising mid-sentence that she could not for the life of her remember his name. She was sure Dryden had said it sometimes, but it just hadn't sunk in. Never mind. Lots of time to learn it now.

The secretary was not used to being addressed affectionately by dishevelled young women with bits of dried-out seaweed in their hair and only a dilapidated towel between them and extreme immodesty. He twitched all over. 'I beg your pardon, miss?' he said, a touch frostily.

'You probably don't recognise me!' Sylvie exclaimed. She was in a very exclamatory mood by now. 'I'm Sylvie! Remember me? Haven't I changed? Is Dryden home? Can I see him?'

'I really don't…' the secretary began to say, but what he really didn't Sylvie never found out, because a movement behind him in the hall caught her eye, and she saw Dryden coming down the stairs with an irritable look on his face and carrying a book closed around his middle finger, as though all the noise had interrupted his reading.

'Dryden!' she cried, pushed past the stuttering rat-man and ran to him. She tried to run to him. The saying about not attempting to do this before you can walk proved to have a lot of sense in it. She managed to kick herself in the right ankle with her left foot, took a far longer step than she had intended, skipped a few feet more by luck than good management and tripped on the first stair, so that she more or less fell into Dryden's surprised arms.

She buried her face gratefully in the folds of his baggy old coat, smelling of tobacco and beeswax candles and something precious and strange that was only his. He was tall and broad and warm as he had always been. It was the first time she had ever been able to compare their heights, the first time she had really had a height rather than a length, and she was pleasantly surprised to find that she was almost as tall as he was, or would be once she managed to get herself straightened up. Her dependable stick was still in her right hand, and she used that as a lever as well as hooking one arm around his neck to pull herself upright and look into his dear face again.

'Don't just stand there looking like a stunned mullet,' she said joyously. 'Don't you recognise me either?'

'Sylvie?' Dryden murmured disbelievingly.

'Absolutely Sylvie! Oh, I'm so glad you're all right! I didn't know what was happening to you and she told me there was a war on and I just had to find you! Oh, Dryden!' For no reason she could understand, Sylvie was on the verge of bursting into tears. The ribbon-belt had not stood up to her mad rush, and the towel was heading south, but she could not spare any of her mind to feel bad about that.

'Sylvie, what are you doing here? What happened to your ... I mean, how have you ... where did you get this rag you're wearing, it stinks?' Dryden put his hands on her shoulders to hold her away and get a decent look at her, which caused the towel to subside a little more. Sylvie hitched it up quickly, mainly for the rat-man's benefit.

'It's lost and found,' she explained. 'I walked all the way here! But I'm not very good at it yet. But I'm getting the hang of it! I think I already walk better than you swim. Please, is there somewhere I can sit down? I'm so tired. I hate your driveway! I think I'm a bit hyperactive.'

'Yes,' said Dryden, 'I think you are!' He looked over her shoulder to where his secretary still stood holding the door, looking irresolute. 'At least shut the door,' he said. 'It's all right. She'll be staying ... won't you?'

'Yes, please.' The rat-man shut the door and scampered off down the hall.

'Well, put this on.' Dryden shrugged off the heavy brown coat and put it around her shoulders. Sylvie had some trouble keeping upright, since putting her arms through the sleeves involved dropping her stick, and she had to make a grab for Dryden's shoulder.

'Do you think you can manage the stairs?' he asked. 'My rooms are up there.'

'Probably not,' Sylvie admitted. 'Stairs look a bit technical to me. I'd love to see your room, though. Is this where you live all the time? I mean, usually? It's so nice. I like all the archy bits.'

'You're very hyperactive,' Dryden said, with a small rueful laugh. 'Do you want a lift up?' He scooped her up in his arms as he had done many times before, but this time it seemed to cost him a greater effort, and there was a little twist to his mouth that, for a moment, suggested some pain.

'Are you all right? I forgot for a moment that you got hurt at your wedding.'

'How do you know about that?' Dryden looked truly startled, almost alarmed, and he had to steady himself for a moment, leaning his hip on the stairs banister.

'I did research. Are you really all right? You shouldn't carry me if it hurts.'

'It's fine,' he assured her. 'I'm just a bit out of condition. Come on, then.'

Sylvie felt a sudden qualm. 'Your wife's not here, is she?' She really should have asked about that first thing. But it was good to establish the facts now, because if the Princess were not here she certainly intended to kiss Dryden, and possibly to encourage him to commit a little adultery, if she could.

'No,' said Dryden. Sylvie expected more than that, but no more came. He turned around and walked up the stairs with her. His breathing grew a little laboured towards the top, and she suggested that he should put her down once they were clear of the stairs, but he said it was no trouble and carried her right to the door of his rooms. This door had been left ajar, so he only needed to shoulder it open and walk in sideways. Sylvie looked eagerly around the room, and was not disappointed by its book-lined walls. There was a set of double glass doors opening out onto a half-circle balcony with a view of the sea and Pallas across the bay; there was another great half-circle in the shape of a fireplace, not lit because it was a warm evening; there was a handsome roll-top desk and two agreeably fat brown leather armchairs and another door which probably led to a bedroom. There were books stacked on every available flat surface, some opened out flat, some thick with bookmarks. The water pipe was on the floor next to one of the armchairs. Dryden gently set her down in the other chair, and sat down opposite her in the first, still staring at her as though she amazed him, which she probably did.

Sylvie wrapped the robe more comfortably around her. It was lovely wearing something of Dryden's, as though she were immersed in a sense of him. The sandy old towel was very itchy and uncomfortable by comparison and she was hoping she could sort of ease it off underneath and let it drop on the floor.

'What's happened to you?' he asked. 'There aren't really sea-witches, are there? Although I suppose anything is possible. You still seem to have a perfectly good voice, though. I heard you all the way up the drive. I couldn't think who it could be; I only know one person who sings like that.'

'I don't know how it happened,' Sylvie said. 'It's a miracle. Let me tell you the whole story. Oh, but first, please could I have something to eat? I could eat a ... a horse, that's what you say, isn't it?'

'You're getting a good grip on our idiom,' Dryden said, and rang for whatever food could be quickly rounded up from the kitchen. Sylvie took the opportunity to dump the towel, and was soon happily ensconced in the armchair with a plate of cold roast potatoes, two lamp chops and an orange, which Dryden occupied himself peeling for her.

Sylvie ate while talking, and often talked so much that she could not eat. Dryden listened patiently, attentively; the sunset light from the glass doors spread itself thin on the floor and dissolved, and blue night stole in, kept back only by a green-shaded desk lamp. It did not take nearly as long to fill Dryden in on what had happened since they parted as it had to tell Marimay the whole story, and the whole time she talked Sylvie hoped that hearing it this way, the words would work on him like magic kisses and reawaken the part of him that loved her.

'So tell me what's been happening to you,' she concluded. 'I know bits of it from what Marimay told me, but I want to hear it all from you. I love how you can describe things. Have you had many adventures? I think that orange's peeled enough.'

Dryden looked at the orange in his hand, which he had absent-mindedly denuded of both peel and pith, as though just remembering that it was there. He passed it to her and got up from his chair, wandering over to look out through the glass doors towards the lights of Pallas.

'I've had adventures like you wouldn't believe,' he said. 'I've been to places and seen things I didn't know existed in the real world any more… I've been, if you'll credit it, to Atlantis, or something very like it, I've seen a genuine Ispano guymelef and the Ispano Clan who built it, I've… I haven't really done anything.'

'Are you being funny?' Sylvie asked. His tone did not sound sarcastic, and she could not see his face. She peeled away a segment of the orange and put it in her mouth, licking the juice from her fingers. Drylander food was tasting better to her, perhaps just because she was so hungry.

'I wish I were,' he said. 'If there's one thing the last few weeks have shown me, it's how little power I really have to change the world. I've tried to fight the forces of absolute destiny with economic sanctions. I've tried to win the heart of a girl who can only think of a white knight on a crusade. I've met the most bizarre people, including one bona fide alien… unless you count the Ispano Clan as aliens, I'm not really sure about them… and practically all of them had more agency than me. In fact, this girl from another world, it seems that her wishes and fears have been shaping the destiny of this world, or at least of the key players in this little drama. Ten thousand years ago, two hundred years ago, ten years ago, worlds have drawn closer together and parted, people have passed through, people have changed and been changed and disappeared from the face of the Earth… which I suppose I should remember to call it from now on, since when you think about it Phantom Moon is not a particularly kind name. Like drylander, perhaps.' He put his hand to the glass in the door, tracing two circles with a fingertip on its hard surface, outlining the two moons.

'I'm very confused,' Sylvie said honestly.

'Well, some things are starting to make more sense to me. I can see what happened to you, now. It all comes back to that old madman, that old genius in Zaibach, tinkering with destiny. Reports have been coming in all day; I asked them to keep me posted by carrier pigeon. During the last battle ... and the flash you saw was an Energist bomb detonated by the Basram Army, which opens up a whole new world of worries for us, but more of that later ... during the last battle he set off something, not a weapon, some great machine that put out a sort of wave of fate, of determination, that I gather made everyone total free agents, so their will was exactly what happened to them. People who had a grudge against each other got to fight to the death. Basram dropped its bomb out of one of those high-flown national senses of manifest destiny. I understand someone who had sort of had their destiny surgically altered reverted to their original self, and you, well, you were wishing for something with all your might when it happened, and so it came true. Probably the nicest thing that came of it. It's stopped now, although who knows what the repercussions will be in time to come.'

'Oh… I thought it was a gift from God. I thought it was a sign that I was meant to find you, and we'd be together again.' Sylvie looked at the half-orange she still held. The juice was drying on her hands and they felt sticky. 'And it was all just… technology?'

'I don't think it was just technology. But I can't put words around what it really was. Of course, that makes me very uncomfortable. It's something that doesn't belong in my world at all. It's more alien to me than you are; certainly more alien than Hitomi.'

'Who's that?'

'Long story,' Dryden replied, and turned away from the window a little wearily, as though discouraged by the length of it. He gave Sylvie a small smile. 'I hope you're not feeling bad about it. You don't deserve to. If what you've got isn't what you truly want, maybe there's some way we can fix that. I mean, however you felt, I'm sure you didn't wish in your heart that you'd never be able to go back under the sea, never be able to breathe in water again.'

'I can, though,' Sylvie protested. 'My gills are still here.' She lifted up her hair and tilted her head to show him the slits in the skin of her neck. 'I won't be able to swim as well as I could, but I can still do it. I didn't wish to be human, I just wished to be a mermaid who could walk on land and not get puffed.'

'In other words,' Dryden said, his smile broadening a little as he folded his arms and leaned back against the doorway, 'an impossible combination, a spotted sausage.'

'I suppose so!' For a moment Sylvie thought that this would be the moment when they would laugh together again, and things would come right, but Dryden's smile faded again, overwhelmed by the air of sadness he had had all this evening.

'Please explain things to me properly,' she said. 'It sounds as though it's very interesting, and also I haven't the faintest idea what you're talking about.'

'Dear girl, we'll be up all night. I told you, it's a story that goes back ten thousand years, back to the days of Atlantis.' He returned to his armchair and sat down heavily, slumped with his arms hanging over the sides.

'Well, I know about Atlantis. My ancestors came from there,' Sylvie said, matter-of-factly.

'You what?' Dryden's right eyebrow betrayed a flicker of interest.

'The seas around Atlantis, anyway. They were in constant communication and co-operation with the people of the continent, up to a point where the drylanders started doing something that the sea-people really didn't approve of, something very wrong, although the old records don't specify exactly what, they're often like that about abominations. They used to think that naming something in the past gave it the power to affect the present and future.'

'Yes, but if you don't remember the crimes of the past they're more likely to be committed again, just by people who don't realise there's any precedent,' Dryden pointed out. 'And people are less likely to take measures to prevent a repeat performance because they won't know what to look out for. Those who don't learn from history are doomed to repeat it, it's so true it's a cliché.'

'I didn't say it was what I thought, I'm just telling you what the people who wrote the oldest books believed. Anyway, everything turned to pus and although we got a new start on Gaea, that was what made the first merpeople here decide not to interfere in any of the drylanders' business, just not to get involved in any way, for the good of both. Some of the Atlantean inventions were greatly indebted to sea-people's involvement, so we felt partly responsible, and it only seemed right not to help that happen again.'

'Unfortunately, in this case the humans figured it out by themselves,' Dryden said, 'although I'm not sure how much was independent invention and how much was just recovering the work of the past. I get the impression, although the facts aren't yet clear, that the real innovative mind in this mess was Folken Fanel's, and that his master was effectively an ingenious archaeologist with his best thinking days behind him, driven on by obsession.'

'But who is Folken Fanel? You need to tell me the story. I don't care if we're up all night. I've missed hearing you talk so much. Please, Dryden.' Sylvie leaned forward and put a hand on his knee, beseechingly. Dryden looked at the hand as though it worried him, and she took it back, although not without leaving damp orange-flavoured fingerprints on his skirt.

'Well, I suppose it will do me good to tell it all out,' he said thoughtfully, after a pause in which Sylvie felt she was dying of frustration. 'It does make a damn' good story, and it will help me get it clear in my head. Perhaps one day I'll write it down and send it to a publishing house on Earth. They'll think it's pure fantasy. I think they have a lot of the same fairy-tales as we do, some from the same mythological sources, some that just seem to have come out the same by chance. Another thing to write a scholarly book on, if I ever want to devote my life to that again. I don't know that I do, now.'

This really alarmed Sylvie. She could not imagine what might occasion such a sea-change in Dryden's outlook and ambitions. She leaned forward in her chair and earnestly begged him to unfold the tale, and after messing around for some time getting his pipe lit to his satisfaction, he did so, for hours.

Smoke gathered in the rafters of the room, and gently blued the air, such as could be seen by the light of the little desk-lamp and the moons shining in. Sylvie listened with her mouth slightly open, and after a time drew her legs up under herself and wrapped the soft old coat more surely around her. She was still sandy underneath, and she badly wanted to have a bath and comb the dried, unheeded Neptune's necklace garlands out of her hair, escaping in long tangled strands from its bun. But the thought of these bodily matters receded to the background of her mind, as the foreground filled with the images Dryden conjured as he spoke. In the coils and wraiths of smoke, Sylvie seemed to see dragons' tails, shining claws, cards, fluttering leaves of long-lost books; swords, crowns, marching giants, eyes the better to see you with and wings of leather and feather.

One image grew clearer and clearer, the shining face and form of Princess Millerna. Sylvie felt she knew every golden-blonde hair of her head. From the account of her talents and achievements Dryden gave, she could pretty much have prepared a complete curriculum vitae. She would have known her on a dark night by the smell of her perfume, vanilla and tuberose. She was surprised he didn't think to state her height, weight and shoe size ... although, of course, Millerna's feet were bound to be daintily small and perfectly arched and just made for enchanted glass slippers. Sylvie thought of her own dusty, scuffed, blistered feet, rather long, as her fingers were long, and her toes curled up under her as though cringing away from examination. With every sentence in more passionate praise of Millerna's femininity and beauty and ingenuity, she felt commensurately gawkier, homelier and more foolish. She felt like the most incredible embarrassment, a total liability to such a wonderful man. It was terrible. She thanked her guardian stars that she had not, after all, tried to kiss or tempt him. It would obviously be hopeless, and he would probably have been offended.

She was just sinking into the stagnant tank of despair when Dryden said something that made her pointed ears twitch.

'Of course, all that is by the board, since she doesn't love me.'

'Doesn't love you!?'

'Doesn't love me,' he repeated, with a sad, wry smile. 'Haven't you been paying attention to the storyteller? Remember Allen Schezar?'

'I thought Hitomi whatshername was in love with him.'

'Oh, every-bloody-one's in love with Allen at some stage or another,' Dryden said peevishly, 'with his flash bloody uniform and his shiny bloody sword and his stupid bloody hair. I think Hitomi's gone off him now, anyway. No, it's Allen Millerna loves, and don't I know it.'

'She wasn't unfaithful to you, was she?' Sylvie's fists clenched unconsciously.

'Not so far as I know. No, I don't believe she ever was. On the practical side, she wouldn't have had many opportunities, and I think he'd at least have had enough sense not to try something like that at a time like this. And on the less practical side, I can't believe she would do that. She's a good girl. She takes things like marriage seriously. Which is why it's such a cage to her. And that's why I've tried to set her free.'

'What do you mean?'

'It's why I'm here. I've left her. I gave her back the wedding ring, I gave her her freedom. I'm not the person she needs. I'm not the person Asturia needs, for that matter. I told her I was going to help the people as a merchant, but I can't say I believe I'll be doing much positive good. I told her I was going to try and become the man she deserved, but the thing is, she doesn't want a man she deserves, she wants this one.' He leaned over and picked up a magazine lying on the hearth and tossed it to Sylvie, who caught it seal-style with both hands. 'Page three.'

The magazine was an Illustrated Pallas News, last week's edition, and page three was devoted to a morale-raising article about what fine people were fighting for Asturia. There was a large engraved picture captioned 'Allen Schezar of the Knights of Heaven.'

'I thought of drawing a moustache and spectacles on it, but that's the pot calling the kettle black, don't you think?' Dryden asked, trying to be flippant. 'Don't you go falling in love with him, now. I couldn't take it if you did, too.'

'Why would anyone prefer this baby-faced ponce to you?' Sylvie asked, exasperated by the very thought. Dryden started to laugh, just a little low chuckle. It encouraged her beyond measure, so she continued with her critique. 'Look at his hair! He's stolen my sister's hairstyle! And what about those ridiculous puffy sleeves ... does he have to turn sideways to walk through doorways, or what?'

'Ah-ah-ah, don't mock the sleeves, they're very practical, they're inflatable for if he falls in the water to keep him afloat.'

'He has to blow them up with a little pump every morning!'

'He makes his sergeant blow them up, it's beneath him.' It was not top-class material, but she had finally got him laughing, and he looked like himself again. There was some light in the eyes behind the flat windows.

'The day I fall in love with something like that you can kipper me,' Sylvie said, flinging the magazine into the fireplace with a dismissive sniff. 'You gave a very good description of Millerna but you forgot to mention that she's completely round the twist.'

That had been the wrong thing to say; he sobered abruptly and almost frowned at her. 'You only say that because you don't know her,' he said, with an air of restraint. 'You shouldn't talk that way about her.'

'Well, I can at least say she's got horrible taste. How can she turn her perfect little nose up at someone like you? You're so smart and so gorgeous and funny and kind and…' He was waving his hand for her to stop, and not laughingly, with the mock-modesty he liked to affect. Dryden being so serious felt all wrong, and Sylvie felt that she was making it worse with everything she said now. 'Well, you did say that if I didn't say those things you'd have to, so I thought I'd spare you the trouble.'

'I shouldn't have talked that way. I was a conceited young ass.' He put a hand over his eyes, once more wearily, once more as though he were no longer a young man in his heart.

'You were not! I mean ... you were conceited, but in a way I loved. Dryden…' Sylvie clambered out of the chair, tried to cross the space between them, staggered and ended up kneeling, her hands on his knees. 'I love you. I love you more than anyone, I love you more than myself. I love everything about you, even the things that annoy me, I love you annoying me because only you can be that kind of annoying. She can't see you the way I do or she'd love you too. Please don't be unhappy because of her. Let me make you happy. It's the only thing that will make me happy.' The tears bubbled up and she hid her face in the folds of his clothes, hugging his legs in an undignified manner. What made it worse was remembering how he had clung to her legs ... her tail, she was surprised to need to remind herself ... as she sat on the edge of the aquarium, smiling up at her impudently, inviting her to share happiness. Everything was the wrong way round.

Sylvie felt Dryden's hand on top of her head, kindly stroking the rough, tangled hair. He sighed as he touched her, not one of his soft sighs of contentment, but an exhalation of trouble in the past and trouble to come.

'If you're going to say no, don't say anything!' she blurted.

'Sylvie, sweetie…'

'You only get to call me sweetie if you love me!'

'Sylvie, look at me. I can't understand a thing you're saying if you talk into my lap.'

Sylvie sniffed hard and raised her face. Now she was tearstained and blotchy. Millerna probably never cried. If she were exceptionally sad she might weep, very gracefully and beautifully, pearly tears just brimming over from great bright eyes that never got pink or puffy, and princesses never got runny noses.

'You know I love you. It was all the way through my story. It's why I've got a story!'

'And you know I love Millerna. Same thing.' He spoke very gently.

'I loved you first. I've got dibs,' she said, childishly.

'I'm truly, truly sorry to be hurting you. But… but I'm still hoping I can make it come out right with Millerna… I'm hoping I can believe in that saying, you know the one? If you love something, set it free. If it comes back to you, it's yours forever. If it doesn't it never was. It's an awful old cliché but I'm hoping that's because it's true too.' Dryden's smile now was a tremulous, tearful thing. Abruptly, he blinked hard, and pushed up his glasses to rub his eyes with his fingers.

'You complete idiot!'

Dryden looked up in shock at the sharpness in Sylvie's voice. She had called him names before, in an affectionate, joking way, but now she sounded as though she meant it.

'Why did I ever think you were smarter than me? It's right in front of you and you can't even see it with glasses! I came back!' She struggled to her feet and stood alone, fists on her hips, so angry she hardly noticed she was balancing properly for the first time. 'You set me free and I came back!' Even in her fury there was a kind of elation to seeing the answer so perfectly, so clearly. 'What are you going all red for?' she demanded. 'Can't handle the truth?'

'Um… you know, when you're standing like that that coat doesn't really cover a lot of the front of you.'

'Well? You're allowed to look. Half of it isn't new to you anyway. And it's all yours. Yours forever! You bought a mermaid, remember. Dumping a pet in the wild is abandonment!'

Dryden stood up and tugged the front of the robe closed. Sylvie flung her arms around his waist while his hands were raised and hung on like a limpet.

'Oh dear,' she said, beaming up at him, 'suddenly I just can't stand up any longer. What a shame!'

'Sylvie,' Dryden said, with immense, patronising patience, 'firstly, you've just undermined your whole point about me setting you free by calling it abandonment, and secondly, I've never for a second thought of you as a pet. I think of you as a dear friend, an equal, someone I respect.'

'You make fun of me, though,' she said sulkily.

'I make fun of everyone. I make fun of me!'

'Well, good, because I don't want to be your pet. And I don't want to be your friend either. I mean, I do, but at the same time as being your love. I want to have it both ways. I know I can, this body proves it. Anything's possible. You set me free! And now I want you to keep me!'

Dryden looked into her upturned, tear-streaked, shining face, and in his brimming eyes she found confusion and tenderness. 'Dearest Sylvie,' he said, 'I can't give you my heart. I've left it with someone else. And I won't take where I can't give. It's not fair trade.'

'We'll buy you a mechanical one in Zaibach,' Sylvie said. 'Shiny and new with a nice loud tick.'

'You don't want to be loved by clockwork, do you?'

'Then give Millerna the mechanical one as a swap for your real one.' Sylvie freed one hand and reached up to remove his glasses, which he allowed her to do with an air of resignation, closing his eyes as though he gave up. She passed that hand around the back of his neck and gently drew his head down so that she could kiss his eyelids. The sound of her sharply drawn-in breath made them flicker open.


'Your tears are salty!'

'Aren't everyone's?'

'I didn't know anyone's were! You've got the sea in your eyes!' Sylvie held up an admonitory finger. 'You're smiling. Don't try to deny it, you're smiling. You've got to keep smiling for me.'

'I can't promise you anything,' Dryden hedged, 'anything at all. I put the ball in her court on purpose. If she asks me to come back to her you know I will, don't you? If you hang around me you may just be setting yourself up to be hurt more.'

'I know, I know,' Sylvie said. 'I'm still not giving up. You wouldn't even be saying that if you were really sure you only loved her. Oh, it's true, you're only a man and I shouldn't depend on you, but you can always depend on me.'

'When did you get so world-weary and wise?' he asked. 'Do you have hidden depths?'

'Fathoms of them. You haven't even started to be an expert on Sylvie. Dive in!'

'I'm married, sweetie. I do take that seriously. If you want to stay, you're sleeping in the bath.'

'Then I'll wait. You have no idea how tenacious I can be. And whatever you do, I'll help you. We're still going to have a great life together. I believe in this! It's going to happen. As I will, so mote it be.'

'Great,' Dryden said ruefully, 'I've got myself mixed up with a real sea-witch.'

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