*This is the new free novel I’m posting here a chapter at a time. For previous chapters, page back to previous weeks, but be aware I skipped last week. This is pre-first-draft, as it comes out. It is a sequel to Witchfinder which will soon be taken down (once edited) and put for sale on Amazon. Meanwhile, if you donate $6 or more, I’ll get you a copy of Rogue Magic, once finished and edited, in your favored ebook format. Of course, if you’re already subscribing to the blog at a level at which you get whichever books come out that year, you don’t need to worry. Until I give this a tab, you can find older chapters by paging back to Friday (or the first, I think Sat/Sun) or simply searching Rogue Magic.*
A Hearty Dislike Of Fish
Miss Helen Blythe, Sister of the Earl of Savage:
I came up the steps with what dignity I could. It wasn’t much. To any of you considering disguising yourselves as boys, and then being thoroughly soaked, be aware that the bindings slip and things spring free, pushing against the too-tight boy’s coat and revealing very clearly – an in a quite indecent manner – your gender.
On top of that, the breeches clung to my legs, and I’d lost my hat somewhere, so that what hair I had remaining clung to the sides of my face. I had no mirror and couldn’t tell how I looked, but if I looked like Betsy, I must be making a very good imitation of a drowned corpse, reanimated and brought to life in jerky moves.
Betsy was pale, and wan, she kept crying. Her blond hair clung to the sides of her face obscuring most of it, and her nose had gone a quite unnatural pink. To make it worse, she kept tripping on her soaked breeches and boots, and falling.
Some part of me wanted me to be mad at the wretched girl, but all I could think was “what have I done?” and also that this was all my fault for getting both of us in this horrible situation. So I gave her my hand. Hers felt very cold and floppy, sort of like you’d expect the hand of a drowning victim to feel.
“Come, Betsy,” I said, and supported her with an arm around her waist.
What she answered back weren’t words, but an ululation of despair that sounded somewhat like “Woooooooowoooow.”
I thought if Mamma heard it she’d tell Betsy to stop that wretched noise. But if Mamma heard it, that meant she would see me, and I suspected this was an escapade that would cost me far more than not going to a few balls, or getting preached to a lot. This was an escapade even I, myself, was starting to consider must be very ill considered. I went back over my reasoning, in my mind, as I dragged Betsy out of the pool. There were a sort of rough stone steps there, and it became easier to walk once we had water lower than our knees.
I slopped out of the pool, and slopped along the flagstones, and stood in front of the fish-men with the tridents, who were looking at Betsy and I as though we were something the cat had dragged in, and something snapped in me. “I always disliked fish excessively,” I said, in my haughtiest tone, which sounded exactly like what Mamma sounds like when she finds someone has violated the order of precedence and sat her lower than her great rival, Mrs. Piper.
The two men looked at each other, and suddenly laughed. This was far worse than if they’d hit me or something, because when they threw back their heads and laughed, I saw row upon row of very sharp teeth. They had at least three rows of them, all sharp like needles. I jumped back, but they didn’t see because they were still laughing, and I told myself I was being a stupid little coward and found my courage. The one compliment that Jonathan ever made me which I treasured was that I was pluck to the backbone and never flinched, better than most boys. Of course, usually he said that after he’d hit me on the face with a ball and was trying to get me to stop crying.
Betsy had shrieked, and she was crying, but Betsy was Betsy and she’d never stopped blubbering since we’d got here. And besides, I started suspecting she was much younger than I. She might be no more than fourteen or fifteen. It had never occurred to me before. I mean, maids didn’t have ages, did they? They were just there. Even the ones one used as allies.
I whispered, “It is well, Betsy. I’ll get us out of here.” And wished I could believe it. The two men, meanwhile, looked at each other and one of them said, “She will do. Better than we could have hoped.”
And then they told us to walk ahead, and the two of them got behind us. Since I was sure my view behind was as revealing as in front, this did no relieve my embarrassment, but I kept telling myself after all fish didn’t mate with women, and men didn’t have fins. And if I had a fishbowl in my room, surely I wouldn’t be embarrassed by it. So why should I be embarrassed by these men?
We went ahead into what were almost surely natural caverns that had got shaped to look like hallways. The doors were made of wood that looked like it had been at the bottom of the sea a long time. And it would, of course, for where else were people who lived in and under water get wood?
And the feeling had grown on me that these people lived under water. We were in an area with air, but I felt it was a pocket, perhaps caused by underground caverns. I can’t say whence the feeling came, exactly, except perhaps from the very faint murmur of water that seemed to come from all directions, including overwater.
There were murmurs of water of another kind inside the hallways of the cavern complex. It sounded like a million little twinkling fountains, and the sounds merged ill with my squelching boots, and the feel of water trickling down my back.
Also, the whole place smelled mildewy and salty, like long-submerged buildings. Once, when I was little, Jonathan had taken me to the seaside. I don’t precisely remember why. But he’d gone fishing at one of the manors we own near the coast and he’d taken me along, possibly because I’d just got a governess while the other girls were still with nursie, and my governess had travelled with us. In retrospect, remembering some things I didn’t then notice, it is entirely possible she wasn’t exactly respectable. I know Mamma fired her a year later and I wondered if Jonathan had given her her conge. I hadn’t thought of her in years, but I now remembered looks she and my brother had exchanged that made me blush even more than my unbound breasts poking against the boy’s jacket.
But back then I was perfectly innocent, and Jonathan had taken me exploring some caverns at low tide. Tame stuff, of course, little more than small rooms, just above the low tide. I’d thought it was high adventure then. But even then I’d thought it smelled like some very large incontinent creature had relieved itself all over the caves. Now, it seemed like everything around here had been made use of by the same creature. Only it would have to be a much larger creature.
And as though on command there was a sound, like a moo and roar put together, from under my feet, and I jumped, and Betsy dropped to her knees.
She was crying again, and I grabbed at her arms and tried to pull her up, and she looked white as a sheet and was crying, and now the two guards moved forward, and started helping to pull her, but in such a way that it gave me the impression they would drag her on her knees if she shouldn’t stand.
What was scarier was the way they looked. They both looked scared. And one of them said, “It senses her.” And the other “We have to get her out of this place.”
And then they were both dragging us, and I barely managed to pull Betsy to her feet. The incident so unsettled me that I wasn’t more than half aware of passing a lot more doors, and walking down yet another hallway.
The walls around us changed and looked like they’d been carved of pure jade, which I don’t think they could possibly be. The floor under us looked like white marble, which again I don’t think it could possibly be.
And then we entered… a throne room. It is the only way to describe it. There were men and women… well, fish men and fish women, attired in what looked very like court dress. Mind you, it all smelled fishy, and if you looked really close you could tell that the women’s gowns were woven of seaweed and the ornaments might be pearls or they might be seashells, and they didn’t seem to make a distinction. But even so I felt underdressed, and when Betsy started her whoowowowow again, I reached over and clapped my hand on her mouth.
Then I looked up towards the throne.
First let’s establish that he was handsome. I mean, he was a fish man like the others, but he was handsome. He wore a sort of white shirt, and I realized it was the first pure white thing I’d seen down here. I’d bet it was linen too, and not seaweed. And his knee breeches looked to be velvet. I wondered if he went to my world to have them tailored. They were deep emerald green, as were his eyes. His hair was sort of greenish gold, like gold that is starting to tarnish. His features would not have passed unremarked in the ton, wherever handsome men were mentioned. He had a square jaw, and well defined cheekbones, and he wore a white and gold crown as though he’d been born with it.
But when he opened his mouth to speak, it was easy to see that he had the same teeth as the other two. And as for the shirt, the fins along his arms pushed it up in a most unsettling way on the sleeves, and they seemed to pulse with his every movement.
“Ah,” he said, in a tone of great satisfaction. “So that was the disturbance. We caught better than we fished for.”
The fish men who’d brought us here, shoved us in the back, “Kneel to the king.”
But the king made a sound that might be laughter, and grinned at me, displaying his rows of needle-sharp teeth, “No. Do not make them kneel. If my betrothed and her assistant can’t stand in my presence, who can?”
Have I said how heartily I dislike fish?