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A NineStar Press Publication

Published by NineStar Press

P.O. Box 91792,

Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87199 USA.

www.ninestarpress.com

Walking on Water

Copyright © 2017 by Matthew J. Metzger

Cover Art by Natasha Snow Copyright © 2017

Edited by: Elizabetta

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any material form, whether by printing, photocopying, scanning or otherwise without the written permission of the publisher. To request permission and all other inquiries, contact NineStar Press at the physical or web addresses above or at Contact@ninestarpress.com

Printed in the USA

First Edition, November, 2017

Also available in paperback: ISBN 978-1-947904-25-5

Warning: This book contains sexually explicit content, which may only be suitable for mature readers.

Walking on Water

Matthew J. Metzger

Table of Contents

Dedication

Glossary of German Words

About the Author

Für Maria, weil ich dich liebe.

And for my readers, whose response to my asking for a transgender Little Mermaid was to tell me to write it myself. Thanks…I think.

Chapter One

When the sand settled, only silence remained.

The explosion had gone on for what felt like forever—a great boom that shuddered through the water, a shadow that had borne down on the nest like the end of the world had come, and then nothing but panicked escape from the crushing water, the darkness, and the suffocating whirlwind of sand and stones. In the terror, it had seemed like it would never end.

But it did end, eventually. When it did, Calla lay hidden in the gardens, deafened and dazed. She was shivering, though it wasn’t cold. An attack. They had been attacked. By what? Orcas and rival clans could hardly end the world. And what would wish to attack them so?

She took a breath. And another. Her attempts to calm herself felt pathetic and weak, like the desperate attempts of a mewling child. Where was Father? Her sisters? Where even the crabs that chattered and scuttled amongst the bushes? She was alone in the silent gardens, and Calla had never been alone before.

Slowly, she reached out. Slipped through the towering trunks, to the very edge of the gardens, to where the noise had come from. Drew aside a fern and—

Ducked down, clapping a hand over her mouth to prevent the gasp.

A giant beast lay in the courtyard.

Still. Oh, great seas, be still. She held her breath and closed her eyes. It had to be an orca, a beast so huge, and it would see her if she moved.

Yet even in her fear, Calla knew that wasn’t quite right.

Orcas didn’t come this far south—did they? Father had said they would be undisturbed here. Father had said.

She peeked again. Daring. The beast didn’t move.

Nor was it an orca. It was impossible, too huge even for that. Oh, she’d not seen an orca since she’d been a merling, but they’d never been that big. It had squashed the courtyard flat under its great belly, its tail and head—though she couldn’t tell one from the other—spilling out over the rocks and nests that had been homes, once. It would have crushed their occupants, surely. What beast killed by crushing?

Hesitantly, she drifted out of the garden. Her tail brushed the ferns, and she wrapped her fins around them, childishly seeking comfort.

The beast didn’t move.

In fact, it didn’t breathe. Its enormous ribcage, dark and broken, was punctured by a great hole, a huge gaping blackness longer than Calla’s entire body, and wider by far.

It had been slain.

Bloodless. It was quite dead. How could it be dead, how could its heart have been torn out so, without spilling blood into the water? Where was the column of red that marked its descent? Where was—

Oh.

A cloud!”

It was no beast.

Calla fled the safety of the gardens in a flurry of excitement. No, that great oval shape was familiar. How many had scudded gently across the sky in her lifetime? How many times had she watched their passage from her window? Beautiful, dark, silent wonders. Oh, a cloud!

She rushed closer to look. How could a cloud have fallen to earth? Father had said they were simply things that happened in the sky, and no concern of theirs. But this one had fallen, lay here and near and so very touchable—and now Calla wanted to touch the sky.

It was—

She held her breath—and touched it.

Oh.

Rough. Sharp. Its body was dark against her pale hand. And hard, so very hard. She had imagined clouds to be soft and fluid, to walk on water as they did, but it wasn’t. Huge and heavy, it was a miracle that it walked at all.

And a home: tiny molluscs clung to it. As she walked her webbed fingers up the roughness and came over the crest of its enormous belly, she mourned its death. This must have killed it. Such a deep, round belly—clouds were obviously like rocks and stone, but this one had been cut in half. Exposed to the sea was a sheer, flat expanse of paleness, with great cracks in the surface. A column stuck out from the middle, and two smaller ones at head and tail. It had been impaled by something, the poor thing.

“Calla!”

The hiss reached her from far away, but Calla ignored it. The poor cloud was dead. It had been slain, and whatever had dragged it from the sky must have been immense, to wield spears like those jutting from its body. And it wasn’t here.

Clouds were harmless. Dead clouds, even more so.

“Calla, what are you doing?”

“Meri, come and see!” she called back to her sister and ducked to swim along its flattened insides. Great ropes of seaweed, twisted into impossible coils, trailed from its bones. Vast stains, dark and pink, smeared its ragged edges. When Calla peered up into the sky, at the stream of bubbles still softly rising from its innards, she could see the gentle descent of debris. It had been torn apart.

Orcas? But an orca pack would have followed it down. Sharks? Calla had never seen a shark, but Father had, long ago when he was a merling, and he’d said they were great and terrible hunters. Were sharks big enough to do it?

“Calla!”

That was not Meri’s voice. Deep and commanding, it vibrated through the water like a blow. Calla found herself swimming up the side to answer automatically, and came clear of the cloud’s gut barely in time to prevent the second shout.

Father did not like to call a second time.

“Here. Now.”

She went. At once. The immense joy at her discovery was diminished in a moment by his stern face and sterner voice, and Calla loathed it. She felt like a merling under Father’s frown and struggled to keep her face blank instead of echoing his displeased expression.

“You should stay away from such things. The guards will deal with it.”

“But Father—”

He gave her a look. She ducked her chin and drifted across to join her sisters at the window. The window. Pah. What good was the window, was seeing, when she had touched it?

“What is it?” Balta whispered, twirling her hair around her fingers.

A cloud,” Calla said in her most impressive voice and then pushed between Meri and Balta to peer out. The guard were swarming over the cloud’s belly, poking more holes in the poor thing’s body. “Something killed it.”

Meri snorted. “Talk sense, Calla.”

“Something did!”

“You sound like a seal, grunting nonsense.”

I do not!”

“Girls!”

They subsided under Father’s booming reprimand—although Calla snuck in a quick pinch before stopping—and returned to watching.

“Clouds don’t fall out of the sky,” Meri whispered. “It must be a shark. There’s nothing so big as a shark. Father said so.”

“Father also said sharks don’t come this far north,” Balta chirped uncertainly, still twirling her hair.

“That’s a cloud,” Calla said and peered upwards to the sky, her eyes following the great trail of bubbles, “and I bet something even bigger killed it.”

Chapter Two

Alarik’s fist hit the table with a meaty thud. A plate jumped from the wood, landed a little too far over, teetered, and fell.

The shattering of ceramic on the stone floor was met with uneasy silence.

“Leave us.”

Nothing.

“Leave us!”

The advisors jumped, before scrambling to gather their reports. The king was not unlike his late father—amiable when in the mood but quick to turn. And judging by the clenched, shaking fist on the table, the king had indeed turned. Janez, more than used to such moods, simply waited.

Only when the door closed behind the last stuttered, “Your Majesty,” did Alarik unclench his fist.

“This,” he said gravely, “is what happens when interest and bootlicking is permitted over merit. What business did Reiswitz have commanding a ship in the first place? The man was incapable of finding his backside with both hands if given instructions!”

Prince Janez shrugged. He was one of perhaps four people in the kingdom utterly unshaken by the king’s temper.

“A ship sunk, another captured, three hundred men lost to me. The guns won’t be replaced quickly or easily, and the men even less so. We’re pressing them as it is!”

Still, Janez said nothing.

We’re running out of money, out of food, and out of men. There are rumours of mutiny as it is. I can only thank God that—so far—we’re evenly matched. But one alliance, Janez, one alliance—!”

Silence fell. The king breathed heavily, his palm flat on the wood.

The prince, very slowly, lifted his boots to rest on the seat of another chair and sat back.

The king’s eyes flicked up.

For a split second, rage thundered in that icy blue gaze—and then it died. It drifted away like a storm before a warm southerly breeze. Brushed away, and dissipated. Janez watched it fade as plain as any real storm out over the waves.

“Father would have known what to do,” Alarik said quietly and sank into his chair.

“Father isn’t here.”

Janez’s low assertion seemed to echo in the room, and both king and prince fell silent. Years had passed, and the wound still bled.

“Mother sends her love,” Janez continued. “She begs us both to be safe and sends music for Ingrid’s lessons. I gave her letters to Sofia on my arrival. They’ll be waiting for you when you retire.”

“I cannot. I have to—”

The admiral will be dealing with the loss of the Held. The enemy were badly grazed, as well, and winter is coming. Likely this was the last action before the ice sets in. If it’s a savage one, they’ll be blocked in—and even if it isn’t, they’ll concentrate on feeding their own and not freezing to death in stranded ships on the sea. They always have. This is a demoralising blow. An action to startle, not to truly wound. A show of force.”

“A show that worked!”

“For now. They suffer winter worse than we do. While they shiver, we can strategise In the meantime, focus on rebuilding—both ships and safe harbours. Our answer lies in alliances—and you cannot forge an alliance tonight.”

“I can—”

“Tonight, you can do nothing. Rest. Kiss your children goodnight, and go to your wife. Make more children.”

A faint smile flickered on the king’s face.

“Tomorrow, wage war again. But a war cannot be won by a shattered king.”

Alarik finally leaned back from the great maps on the table, a dark mark in fresh ink picking out the spot where the Held had gone down. She’d been no great ship, little more than a sloop, and built in foreign harbours some forty years ago, but she’d been a stout sloop, a great weatherer of ice and enemy action. Janez had sailed in her, once or twice. He remembered her faults and fancies well.

Until Captain Reiswitz had set his incompetent boots on her boards, and she’d been set alight and sunk, with all hands aboard.

“I only thank God you were not with them,” Alarik said.

Janez said nothing.

Alarik fell quiet for a long moment, staring almost blindly at that inky stain—and then started as if woken from a dream.

“This is maudlin. And useless. A drink, brother?”

“Too kind.”

“Cut the formalities, Janez. We’re alone.”

“So I am speaking to my brother and not my king?” Janez asked, voice full of amusement as Alarik filled two cups with dark, sweet wine.

“Always, when we’re amongst none but family.”

“Then go to your family.”

“After a drink with one of them.”

Quite suddenly, Janez pulled a face, and then both men were laughing. The weight of a kingdom lay at the harbour below. The weight of a war snuffled at the closed door. But for a brief time, in the sputtering candlelight, they were merely brothers, children again, with little more worries than a common distaste for their music tutor.

“I’ve missed you,” Alarik said with undisguised fondness and slid a brimming cup across the table as he sank back into his chair.

“And I you,” Janez said, raising the cup. “To family.”

“To family,” Alarik said and lifted his own a little higher. “To brothers.”

“You are maudlin.”

“And you could have been on that ship—you were supposed to be.”

“I was?”

“Yes. When you returned from the Winter Palace, I had instructed the admiral to have you posted as first lieutenant, to attempt to curtail some of Reiswitz’s stupidity.”

“Well, then we ought to be grateful that Reiswitz’s stupidity is faster than two hundred miles by horse.”

“You rode?”

“Of course.”

“Alone?”

“I’m going to say no,” Janez said, “as I’m enjoying a drink with my brother and don’t wish my king to make one of his enraged appearances.”

Alarik shot him a foul look but subsided with a grumble, making his feelings well known on the matter.

“You’re a fool, Janez.”

“But a living one, and fully intending to eke out a few more years. In any case, it would have been a poor choice on your part.”

“Why?”

“You don’t remember the last time Captain Reiswitz and I were in the same room?”

Alarik’s face eased from its scowling countenance, and he laughed. “He thought you had propositioned his sister, and challenged you to a duel—”

“—so his sister dutifully took my pistol and shot him in the arm,” Janez finished with a crowing laugh, and rank and privilege were both forgotten as the men hooted like sailors in a tavern at the memory.

“And the look of horror on your face!”

“Any man who propositioned her most likely wound up dead– I wanted to ask if he thought me suicidal!”

“I’ve quite forgotten her name.”

“Catherine,” Janez supplied. “I saw her at the Winter Palace. Still as formidable as ever—and as forthright. Damned be the uniform and my standing, she hit me and then hugged me.”

“What did you do to deserve that?”

“Oh, breathed, I imagine. She did insist on drinking to the health of every man, woman, and child in the kingdom—and individually, too. After such a greeting, I couldn’t begrudge her a moment of it.”

“I do sympathise,” Alarik said, reaching over to top up Janez’s cup. “I find the urge to hit you quite strong, sometimes. Perhaps I ought to change the laws and have the lady knighted.”

“You never hug me.”

“Would you let me?”

Janez laughed. “That would depend, dear brother. Often, if you’re kind to me, you have some plan in mind.”

“Now, you know that isn’t true…”

“No, of course not—which reminds me, what price the wine?”

Alarik chuckled, called his younger brother suspicious, and sat back. His shoulders were easing, Janez noted with a smile. The king had slipped away, and the exasperated brother, so easy to aggravate, had returned full-force.

“Your silence?”

“I think not,” Janez said, raising his cup with a smirk.

“I take it that now you are back, I won’t be able to keep you from the ships any longer?”

Ah. Perhaps the king was indeed still in the room.

“People will talk if you try.”

“People will talk regardless.”

“I should go. You need a presence on those ships. The men can’t fight your war for you, without—”

“Without the knowledge that I, too, may lose something.”

“Yes.”

Alarik pursed his lips but didn’t argue the point.

“Fine,” he said eventually, “but no damned heroics, Janez. You’re right—an alliance is our best hope for a swift resolution. They would not wage war with a united coast.”

“You’ll never get—”

“Let me worry about who I can and cannot sway to our side. You forget,” Alarik said, levelling a look much like Father’s stern eye at Janez, “that you are still considered something of an eligible—”

Janez hesitated, biting back the curse. Alarik knew very well the reasons why Janez was considered an eligible bachelor. And he ought to know better than to wield them.

But he wished to speak with his brother, and not with maudlin kings, so Janez wrenched a smile into place and crudely said,

“One bastard child, and the world suddenly thinks you have the dimensions of a dockyard donkey.”

Alarik laughed.

The truth need not be known until after such an alliance.”

“Very cruel. The poor lady, to be saddled with me.”

The poor kingdom, to have you for a potential ruler.”

Janez objected, and Alarik insisted, and they cackled together like children a little longer, before Janez broke off to yawn heavily. Too heavily. He eyed the cup suspiciously, and set it down.

“Alarik.”

“You looked tired. I’m surprised Sofia didn’t try the same.”

“If I could damn you both without being taken for a traitor—”

“Please,” Alarik said evenly, leaning back with a fond smile. “You damn us both half a dozen times a day, and nobody’s thrown you in the dungeons yet.”

There’s still time,” Janez grumbled, yawning widely again. “Last time I drink alone with you, brother.”

“You’re a wicked liar,” Alarik said, “and none too good at threats. Come. You’ll sleep in the royal chambers tonight.”

Janez staggered when he rose, and the slide of the king’s arm under his felt oddly reminiscent of their younger days when Father had permitted them to discover wine and women. Janez had never been much for the women, not since Greta, but the wine—ah, the wine

“The next toast I shall utter—” he said determinedly as they passed from the room. A sentry caught at his other arm to lift him. By the man’s unperturbed amusement, he was plainly sly to the king’s plot.

“The next toast, Janez, can be whatever you wish,” Alarik said in that maddening, benevolent tone. “But for once, you can do as you’re told.”

“By whom?”

“Well, if you must know, it was Sofia’s idea.”

Ah, well, for Sofia—”

“I wouldn’t finish that sentence if I were you.”

The royal chambers were not far, but Janez was a heavy man, a veritable pile of muscle and bone. They struggled with him to the cushioned seats under the great window of the sitting room. The sentry was dismissed, and Janez heard the familiar sounds of a father—albeit one with a crown about his temples—checking on his children.

Then a blanket settled over Janez’s exhausted form, and the low light of the candles was snuffed out.

Janez sighed and took his own advice, sagging into the dark, warm hold of sleep.

The ships, the sea, the war and world, would wait a while longer.

Chapter Three

Once the palace had settled, and the only sounds were snoring and the gentle scuttle of the night-crabs on the sea floor, Calla fell straight out of the window and swam clear across the open courtyard to the corpse of the cloud.

Father’s guards had explored every inch of it and declared it to be nothing more than a rock. Calla knew them to be wrong. Rocks didn’t feel like the cloud did. Rocks weren’t shaped like the cloud was. It was a cloud. And it had been slain. Under her palms, it felt so utterly beautiful.

There was something ethereal about its surface. Something otherworldly. That was fitting, wasn’t it? Because it was from another world. It had fallen from the sky, and it could walk on water. It was obviously magical. Calla was touching magic.

Father hated magic. Calla ought to—the only magical thing in the sea was the Witch of the Whalelands, who had driven them out of their previous nest. But there was something alluring, exciting, about magic. As if it could make anything possible.

And now it was here.

Calla pressed her body to the magic and sighed.

Meri would be disgusted by it. Balta would lose interest in moments. All they cared for were singing, shells, and staring after witless mermen. Calla had never felt so distanced from her sisters since they’d outgrown their first set of scales and become mermaids rather than little merlings. She’d never felt quite right since, as though somewhere between her youth and her beauty she’d lost some of herself.

But with her palms against the cloud and nothing but silence surrounding her, Calla could simply be.

She’d always wanted to touch a cloud. It was impossible, of course, as the water was too hot and thin so high, and merfolk would never be able to breathe so close to the sky. It had always been an impossible little dream of hers, like running away or becoming a dolphin. Just silly, childish fantasy. She’d never once imagined that clouds could sink.

It was like a cave inside—perhaps when Meri finally spoke to that insufferable bore she liked, they could nest in here and give Calla an excuse to visit her little nieces and nephews in the cloud. Calla flitted in and out of jagged holes, touching their edges and wondering what teeth had ripped them there. She found strange contraptions made of some thick seaweed or skin and took them to wear like smocks. She tugged a little rope free to tie in her hair. It was rough, unlike any weed she’d felt before, and although it floated amongst her hair, it was heavy and alien.

There was a spear, thick and grey with a strange point, caught in the weeds by one of the holes, and Calla worked it free before wielding it like a guard in Father’s command. She laughingly challenged a wandering cod to a duel. It eyed her with dumb distaste and swam away.

“Fine,” she said. “Be like Meri.”

She would only have tonight. By morning, the nest’s sons would crowd their new plaything, and the king’s daughters would not be allowed. This great slaughtered beauty was not for shells and singing. It was for spears and shields. The guards would likely make a training arena of it until the sea claimed it and it rotted away to a mere hulk.

Calla pressed her webs and fingers against the dark surface until they turned grey, and—for a split second—hated being herself. If she were a merman, even a royal one, she could have played here. Could wear clothes like commoners and explore this grand new thing. Not have to swim bare all the time, and practise nothing but singing and combing seashells into her hair.

“You’re lucky,” she told the cloud. “You can walk on water, and do whatever you please. I imagine clouds can be anything.”

The cloud didn’t answer.

Her bright mood diminished, Calla shed the makeshift shirt and ripped the rope from her hair. She swam high above the cloud to stare at its crippled body from above, and then dropped in a slow, drifting spiral to its head, running her hand over the huge, jutting beak.

And—stopped.

Below the broken beak was rock. A great grey stone, protruding from the dark, alien surface like a giant barnacle. Only, rather than a smooth cloud-shape, or a rough bubbled bottom of a barnacle, Calla found herself staring at a mermaid.

A mermaid.

It was like a stone reflection. A slim figurine, rising out of the cloud like a prophecy. The telltale lip around the top of her tail was buried and hidden within the beast. She had the flat belly and bare breasts of a princess, with her arms streaming out behind her as though she was about to burst free from a great current.

And her face. A blank, beautiful face, crowned by shell-adorned hair.

Calla touched her fingers to the cold face, and a shiver ran up her arm.

A sign.

Oh, it was a sign.



Meri was not convinced.

“Clouds,” she said over breakfast, breaking off from combing her coral-bright hair only long enough to throw Calla a contemptuous look, “are like rocks. They have different shapes all the time. It’s just happenstance.”

“It’s not. It’s a mermaid. I’ll show you!”

“You won’t,” Meri said. “We have singing lessons. And—”

Calla pulled a face that made Balta giggle.

I don’t want to have singing lessons. There’s a cloud in the courtyard, Meri! A cloud with a mermaid on it!”

“A cloud with a chance shape on it. The belly looks like a whale, that doesn’t mean the whales are anything to do with clouds.”

“They look a bit like clouds,” Balta said, “when they swim over us.”

Meri threw her a withering glance. “Balta, eat your breakfast and don’t encourage her.”

Calla opened her mouth, insulted, but Meri shot her a sharp look.

“Just don’t, Calla. It’s a cloud. Nothing more. Father’s guards will break it up and remove it, and—”

And it’s a cloud that fell to earth with a mermaid on it! These things don’t just happen, Meri! They don’t—”

“Father!”

Meri’s raised voice coincided with the opening of the dining hall door, and Calla subsided as her father’s imposing form shadowed the entrance before gliding serenely to the table. He was long and sleek; his deep green tail faded into pale green fins and patterning on his back, where scales and skin mingled in an intricate tattoo and ended in green hair so fair it was nearly white. That hair was long but, in the male tradition, coiled up onto his head in an intricate weave. Calla had always thought mermen wore their hair better than the loose flow of the mermaids, but that was yet another thing Meri would say ‘just don’t’ to.

“Father, do clouds fall from the sky often?” Meri asked loudly, and Calla frowned at her.

“Not often, but it is known. Calla, don’t scowl at your sister.”

His voice was a rattle in the water. Calla smoothed out her expression automatically.

“There’s a mermaid on it!” Balta said, and Father eyed her.

“And how do you know that?”

“Calla said so.”

And how do you know that?” he asked, his great stern face turning towards her.

“I saw.”

“You went, you mean.”

“I—well—”

“A king’s daughter should not be playing in clouds.”

Something inside flinched at such a remark. “Nobody saw me. And I didn’t mean a live mermaid, I mean—”

“Someone has died there? You should have informed the—”

“No! A stone one!”

Father paused.

Oh, Calla, stop it,” Meri whined, but Calla ploughed on.

“Under its beak, there’s a stone mermaid.”

“Whatever do you mean?”

There’s a stone that looks just like a mermaid. A carving!” She seized on the idea hungrily and stared up at the great columns around them. The palace had been carved into the greatest rock on the seabed, and suddenly it was obvious. Meri was right: a stone mermaid wasn’t by chance. “Someone carved a mermaid onto that cloud!”

“Oh, now you’re being ridiculous,” Meri said.

“Calla,” Father said. “You’re not a merling anymore. Silly stories of stone carvings on clouds are—”

“It’s not a silly story!”

Father thumped the table abruptly. “Don’t answer back to me!”

Calla fell mutinously silent.

“Clouds are natural things that walk on water,” Father said sternly. “There is nothing that could have carved anything onto it, because nothing exists above the sky. It is chance. Nothing more.”

“Skymen could.”

There was a sharp pause.

Then Balta started giggling. “Skymen?” she trilled and clapped. “Skymen made the clouds! I like that!”

Oh, Calla.”

Father’s face was dark. “Ridiculous,” he said flatly.

“It’s possible! Mother used to say—”

“Your mother used to tell you eel-stories to make you sleep,” Father boomed. “They were make-believe. There is no such thing as skymen.”

“Then who carved that mermaid?”

The next fist thump made the plates jump. All three sisters cringed back from the table. Father’s knuckles were grey.

“Nobody,” he grated, “carved anything.”

Calla opened her mouth.

“Not a word! You are no merling, Calla! You must stop with these silly stories and start applying yourself. You haven’t sung a note in months, and now these silly fantasies of skymen and carvings in clouds—it is an embarrassment!”

A lump swelled in Calla’s throat and cut off her voice. An—an embarrassment?

“You will not go to that cloud again,” Father said. “And I will check that you have been to your singing lessons this evening. It is time—beyond time—to start acting like the mermaid that you are.”

Like the mermaid she was? Like Meri and Balta? To sit around playing the pipe and singing until some boring clot of a merman from a neighbouring nest was picked for her? So she could—what? Go and swim naked in some other waters and bear a shoal of merlings and do nothing else?

Like Meri and Balta.

Only she wasn’t like them. She didn’t know how, but she wasn’t.

There was a mermaid on the face of that cloud. Someone had put it there. And stories—stories came from somewhere, didn’t they? How could Mother have invented skymen? Mermen with legs, who could walk on water but couldn’t breathe under it like everything elsethat sort of thing was so strange that it couldn’t be made up!

There had to be a grain of truth in it, and that grain wore a mermaid’s face and was jutting from the beak of a fallen cloud.

Calla curled her fingers into fists on the table and lowered her face.

“Yes, Father,” she said.

She lied.

Father had also once said that nobody could touch the clouds. That the merfolk couldn’t breathe all the way up there.

But Calla had touched a cloud last night.

So tonight, she was going to try to touch the sky.

Chapter Four

There was something about the sea.

The smell, the sound, the sway of a ship under one’s shoes—it was a maddening and addictive drug, and until he stood on the deck of the Vogel, Janez didn’t realise just how much he had missed it. Mountains were all fine and good. The Winter Palace and Mother’s time were wonderful things…but God, how he’d missed the sea!

She was rough this morning. A fog had risen off her in the night, and the watchmen had seen the flash of guns and shadow of a foreign sail. And to hell with Alarik’s orders to the sentries—Janez was a commissioned officer. He would answer those horns even if he had to—as he indeed had—leap from a window to do so. The Vogel and the Ente had launched, and now sulked in the open water, watching and waiting for their phantom enemies.

Privately, Janez rather thought a ship called Duck was appropriate in such conditions.

“See anything, Lieutenant?”

He lowered his eyeglass and shook his head at the captain’s question. The fog was lifting—foam-tipped waves licked their sides and crashed back into the water, visible now to fifty feet—but there was a sense, perhaps. Some intuition.

“Something’s out here,” he murmured, “but I cannot say where.”

The captain hummed. He was a great fat man, gnarled and weather-beaten into some grotesque figure, but he was a good one. A true seaman. He knew as well as Janez that something lurked beyond the rising mists.

“Keep looking, Lieutenant. We must see her before she sees us.”

Janez nodded and lifted the glass again.

This world was simple. He was no more a prince here than the ship’s cat. He was an officer, on watch, and his duty was simple. No politics. No pretences. No gauging what he was, or whom he was speaking to, before answering as demanded.

He had to spy a sail. Nothing—

There.

“Captain.”

He came at once. They were close. Whisper.

“There.”

The glass passed between them. A nod. And Janez slipped away to give the order. Quietly now, quietly. Bring her about. Men to the guns—quickly, quickly!

The men were a hardened crew, used to doing such manoeuvres in far stranger conditions than quiet. As the sun began to poke through the mists at last, and their time ran low, Janez raised his sword, the glimmer bright in the early morning.

A horn rang out over the water.

They were seen.

“Fire!”

The guns roared. Smoke rose in thick, dark clouds as they jumped and bellowed. The roll of them being drawn back to reload was like a thousand-chambered heart, pounding on the boards. Janez squinted against the sun, and it burst through the last entrails of fog to reveal a frigate, turning in a slow arc to show her broadside.

Alone, and this close to shore?

Oh, yes. They had been emboldened by the Held all right.

In fact—Janez raked her with his eyes—this monstrous whale had likely brought her down. Her sails had been double-patched and were unnaturally tight. Her railings were a rainbow of different woods. Two of the gun ports had no hatch.

No hatch.

She’s taking water!” he bellowed. “Sink her! Sink her!”

The captain took up the roar, ordering the soldiers into the netting and up the masts. They swarmed like brightly coloured bees, and musket fire began to pepper the enemy deck. And their own. A shot whipped past Janez’s ear, taking a lock of hair with it. He ignored it. Stood firm and fast at the railing. The men would not see their officers yield.

Blast her at the waterline! She’s lame, and means to sink us like the Held!”

The name spurred them. Several hundred hands lost, many that these men would have sailed with, fought with—and would have, would have, died with.

For the Held!” the captain roared, and the cry went up even as the guns roared again, and splinters flew from her hull as the great broadside drew up, and the hatches—those that remained—flew up in a wave.

The boom was deafening. A railing was torn away. Smoke belched over the deck. The mast shuddered under the impact of two eighteen-pounders, but held. The sails shivered, and then filled gluttonously with the breeze. They raked her stern and came about, tighter than their larger prey, and the men flocked to the starboard side to load the guns again.

They circled for perhaps an hour. The frigate was better armed and better manned, but the Vogel’s size allowed them to weave around her and tire her men, and her battered hull worked to their advantage. She began to visibly tilt when they brought her rudder clean away, yet she would not hoist her colours. She would not yield.

“This is a suicide,” Janez breathed, and the midshipman at his side nodded, eyes wide and streaming against the smoke. “They mean to sink us, or be sunk.”

Why so determined? What ship would risk all hands for an insignificant prize like theirs? They were a sloop, not a merchant ship. An enemy, certainly, but were they no longer in the practice of taking prisoners?

“Sink her, or she sinks us!” the captain roared as he gestured wildly at the soldiers clinging to the netting and firing blindly into the darkness. “Her gunners! Remove her gunners!”

Janez shook his head, staring. They had to make contact. They had to board her. The Ente had joined them, but her crew was a boarding crew, unskilled at gunnery and captained by a man more attuned to close warfare. They would be better boarding.

“Here.” He thrust the eyeglass at a midshipman before launching from the quarterdeck. His boots slipped on the boards—blood—and he near-skidded into his captain. “Board her!”

“What?”

Board her! Signal the Ente round to her port side, and we can clutch her between us!”

“Are you mad? A frigate! She’s a frigate!”

“She will not yield!”

The captain stared wide-eyed at him. Shot whistled past them. A ball careened into the deck, a splinter flying up and neatly severing a man’s fingers.

“Board her,” Janez said. “She will sink us if we do not board her.”

There was doubt there.

And then the captain seemed to shake himself. The men were watching. He squared his shoulders—and the order came.

Hooks! Bring us alongside. Mr Dietrich, signal the Ente to assail her starboard, and board her if they can!”

In the smoke and sunlight, both ricocheting off each other in a blinding darkness, heaving the battered Vogel around the enemy’s bow and up her pockmarked port side was a dangerous game. They collided once, the guns bouncing inwards. A boy fell, screaming, into the void between the two ships, and the sound cut off with a sharp crunch as the wooden hulls kissed once more. Janez slid towards the broken railings and caught at the ropes to steady himself.

And braced.

The almighty crash as they collided once more coincided with a terrible howl from the enemy guns. Two simply exploded, the gunpowder and ball caught between wood and metal, and the smell of burning flesh, the cry of death, rose over the chaos like a reminder. Janez flinched, even in his newfound deafness, like a newly launched loblolly boy without the faintest idea of sailing.

Focus!

“Now!”

His sword swept down; the hooks flung outwards and clattered into the torn deck and shattered railings, some catching and some not. The heave of ship to ship was immense—in his bones and under his feet, Janez could feel an answering pull. The Ente had seized her from the other side. The rush of men to cut the ropes was confused.

They had her. They could have her.

“Board!”

The soldiers swarmed. Musket fire answered, and Janez leapt the gap with a roar that came from some primal place deep inside, fuelled not by king and country, but by brotherhood. His sword crashed with that of some faceless, nameless man fuelled likely by the urge to protect his own family, yet Janez fiercely did not care. They meant to sink him. And he would not be sunk!

But even with the Ente and her men, this was no sure thing. The guns boomed and rocked below them, the enemy frigate determined to sink her captors while their men ravaged her decks, and Janez ploughed amongst the guns, slashing at their masters.

Something caught.

One of the Ente’s guns roared, and a ball ploughed through the railing past him. Janez howled as a splinter—two inches thick and seven long—was driven into his thigh. He wrenched it free with a gasp, and bitterly ground down the urge to fall. That meant death. They would cut him down, and Alarik would never forgive him.

The caught thing was around his boot.

And too late, he realised.

As the great gun slipped, strangely silent, through the ragged maw gouged into the ship’s side, its rope coiled around Janez’s ankle and dragged him with it.

For a moment, he simply hung.

Hung in the smoke between two great walls.

He could hear—very faintly, through a distant memory, and very long ago—a woman’s humming. It sounded like Mother’s, yet he knew it to be Sofia. Sofia, humming to his newborn nephew.

The only heir left to Alarik’s throne.

Janez sent up a brief prayer, a brief apology, some desperate hope that his childhood priests and tutors had been right, and he had some soul that could ascend and wait to meet his family again, for some reunion, for some forgiveness.

He had not even kissed little Ingrid goodbye.

Then the water clapped shut over his head, and—

Chapter Five

Calla did not mean to sleep, but she had done so, drifting off waiting for her sisters to do the same. But she woke early, while the night-crabs still explored the gardens below her window, and so without second thought, she slipped away.

Swimming alone was one of Calla’s greatest pleasures. Alone, she could dispose of decorum, and wear clothes if she wished. Alone, she could control her hair and coil it up without a scolding. Alone, she could pretend she was perfect, without a single thing amiss, and that Father’s frown and Meri’s mutterings were nothing but a dream.

Alone, she could simply be.

Calla had never been like her sisters. As she’d shed her baby-blue fragments and grown her darker adult scales, and her skin had deepened to the subtle aquatic green of maturity, she’d felt more different than ever. She was exposed, not only because of her nakedness, but also her bare back. Sometimes, faintly, she wondered if the fin that rose from her father’s waist to the base of his skull did not make him stronger and bolder, did not ground the mermen in a way absent from the mermaids. Why did they have it, and not she? Why could she not obtain that? Why must she swim bare breasted, and they don seaweed shirts over their spinal frills?

“You don’t want one for yourself. You want your husband to have one,” Meri had said, the one and only time Calla had given rise to such thoughts. But that was not quite right, either. The frill itself was ugly and rough. She liked the smooth bareness of a mermaid’s back, although that, too, undoubtedly would horrify Meri. So why would she want it, and hate it, at the same time?

She’d only once said such things, but Calla knew others thought her to be an odd one. Even little Balta, only just turned green herself, had begun to treat her with suspicion. Father kept closer watch on her than the others. And the mermen that came to flirt and court and try their hand at obtaining a king’s daughter, and perhaps siring the future clan leader, always avoided Calla, as though they sensed her not to be a real mermaid at all.

Somehow, she was evidently strange.

But if evidently strange could get her to the sky and touching clouds, then she would show Meri. If she could break off a piece of cloud and bring it back, then she’d have her proof. Father would apologise, and Meri would stop commenting all the time as if she knew better than Calla.

But first, she had to get there.

Straight up was the obvious choice—the shortest distance, and no chance of getting lost—but as the darkness eased to a pale grey, Calla became disoriented anyway. So high from the ground she had lost sight of her landmarks, and all around was the same uniform, uninterrupted grey. She swam until her tail ached—yet there was still no end. Perhaps the sky never came? The sea was hostile and rough so high; she could feel a push at her very being that she had never felt before, like a great hand wished to drag her—somewhere. Anywhere. Then she saw it.

A great blot on the sky, still so very far away.

It was so very much larger than she had ever seen before. A cloud. A great cloud, immense and black above the paling grey.

She could—oh, she could, couldn’t she?

Arms outstretched, she struck out for it even though it was yet leagues away. With a new goal, a landmark at last, the weariness abated. She could breathe. She could see the cloud, and it was just like the one in the courtyard. It had a ribbed, bubbling surface. Little marks. Barnacles—again? Were barnacles magical, that they could touch clouds?

Closer, closer.

And—

Oh. Calla drew up under the cloud until it was so vast it blotted out the sky itself, and she took a great gulping breath. Her heart beat bloody music against her chest. All she had to do—was touch.

She reached.

And breathed out in ecstatic joy as her fingers brushed the rough surface of the cloud.

Oh, it was beautiful.

Rough and alien, just like the one in the courtyard. And yes, there were barnacles. It lived, too. She could feel it shuddering under her webs. She could hear, from very far away, the booms of its heart. They lived! It let her touch it, like a gentle great whale.

She was the only mermaid to have ever done this.

Wouldn’t Meri be silenced! Wouldn’t Balta be jealous! Nobody had ever done this before. Perhaps—just perhaps—Father might stop this insistence on singing lessons that she loathed, on forcing her to screech in her high, painful voice. For who cared for singing when she was the first, the only, to have touched the sky.

Ah, but no. She’d touched a cloud.

A wide beam of mad joy on her face, Calla pressed both hands to the cloud in a fervent kiss and ducked down to swim along its great belly. If she could touch the cloud, then she could touch the sky. She could. She would.

Something boomed.

In a moment, Calla froze. She tensed up small, tail to chest. Ready. To—what? Flee? She was exposed out here. No weeds, no gardens, no rocks. Nothing. The sheer stupidity of her actions came to her all at once, in a seizure of terror, and she prayed fervently to the seas that it was nothing. That clouds were simply loud.

The boom came again, and then the darkness above her swayed open, and light broke in. Not one cloud, but two. A storm? Was this what storms looked like, so far above—

The water shivered, and something fell out of the sky.

A—

Calla’s eyes widened as the little creature drifted downwards. An arm was flung out, streaming a dark trail of blood. Hair, gold and gleaming, fanned out around its face. But it was no merling. It was—

She uncoiled. Followed daringly as the tiny broken creature spiralled gently down like an abandoned kelp dolly.

A skyman.

Oh, but it was!

It had the upper body—broken, so very visibly broken—of a merling, tiny and delicate, with hair as pale as sand. But there was no tail. Instead, two more strange little arms dangled loose, with club-like hands wrapped in strange fabrics. Calla reached out in morbid curiosity—and then recoiled, and the little body drifted away into the dark.

A skyman. No, a skyling. They were—they were—

Real,” she breathed, turning stunned eyes to the sky. They were up there. And the great boom and shudder of the clouds…were they what had killed the cloud? How could something so tiny kill something so—

The water broke with a terrible sound, and a great pointed rock fell from the sky, seaweed streaming from its nose.

And caught in the weeds, a skyman.

A real one, and—alive! It thrashed and wriggled like a fish on a spear, those four arms all writhing and—and—slowing, and—

Hadn’t Mother said that skymen could walk on water, but not breathe it?

He—he was caught in the weeds. That was why he couldn’t just walk up to the top again. He was going to suffocate.

Calla threw caution to the currents and shot after the rock. It was crashing down with a terrible purpose like some ugly great orca, intent on eating this strange creature; Calla was sure of it. She bashed at it with her hands, but it only kept swimming down, so she caught at the rough seaweed and tore, trying to rip it from the skyman’s—limb. It wasn’t an arm, this close. It was so much thicker and longer. Harder. The strange fabrics clothed no hand, as Calla could not bend the wrist to slip it free like a hand would.

But the weed was not tied, only twisted, and she wrenched it open. The rock-whale didn’t notice, plunging downwards, and the skyman drifted beside her.

Walk!” Calla urged and pushed him upwards a little, encouraging. “Go on. Walk!” How did they walk? What even was walking? Mother had said it was like crabs, but crabs scuttled. How could a four-armed skyman scuttle? Unless…

She eyed the strange hands and pushed them up, too. The arms bent in the middle, but the wrong way. The elbows were on wrong. Like—

Like crabs. Legs. These were his legs.

Walk,” she insisted, pushing them both. He rose a little in the water, and then she saw it. Dazed blue eyes, staring upwards. The feeble twitch of unwebbed fingers.

He couldn’t breathe.

Calla looked up desperately. Perhaps—perhaps—

Oh, hadn’t she been about to touch it anyway?

Decision made, she seized the creature under his arms and struggled for the surface. He was heavy and awkward, limp like dragging a seal carcass. Was he dead? He couldn’t be dead. She hadn’t meant to—

Bright light.

She took a deep breath, expecting impact—

And—

Cold.

The—

There was—

Calla tried to breathe, and her gills screeched and clawed for water. Terrified, she ducked under and gulped in air. The sky ended! It just ended!

Was that what skymen breathed?

Tentatively, she heaved another great gasp and then pushed through again. Water slapped at her face in waves. Something stank, sharp and awful. Her face was icy cold, and two huge, hulking clouds swarmed around them. Deafening crashes and screams echoed from them. Fire spat from their bellies, like volcanoes in the deep.

The clouds were—

Swarming. There was movement all along them, like fish on whalebones. Skymen. So many, many skymen. The clouds spat fire again, and another fell with a screech into the water.

Calla’s mouth opened soundlessly.

The clouds were attacking each other. And the men—the men were—

The cloud on the courtyard was no whale. It was an orca. A terrible, murderous beast! And these skymen—so many tiny skymen all over the clouds’ great, white faces—were trying to kill the pod.

She ducked back under for another breath, and then back up. The skyman in her arms coughed and raked in a great gasp. He could breathe here. This was his water.

What to do with him? She shook him, wanting him to get up and walk, but he simply drifted there with her. He was hurt. And if she gave him to the cloud, the cloud would spit fire at him and kill him.

So—what to do?

She turned this way and that in the water, looking for somewhere else, and spied a dark mass far away over the churning sky, low and long like a bank. Perhaps that was where the skymen came from? They had to have nests and homes, too, didn’t they, to be so like merfolk? Perhaps if she took him there—

He stirred feebly in her arms, and Calla struggled to keep them both above the sky. She could never swim so far with him. She looked around and caught for a drifting scrap of cloud. It did not want to go beneath the sky, but she forced it, pressing it under the man until he floated on it, head and torso clear of the waves.

And there he lay, bathed in bright light, and gasped.

Calla grasped both hands about the cloud-cutting and began to swim.

It was hard work. Skymen were heavy, and she kept having to duck below the sky to breathe. His legs drifted beside her head, one bleeding sluggishly, and he nearly slid back below the sky once before she righted him.

But every time she looked up, the bank grew closer.

In time, it formed into a green and yellow cluster, like bright coral. As she drew yet nearer, she could see tiny shapes moving on the edges and great windows in pale stone. They were nests carved into the bank. They lived as merfolk did. They lived.

The sky punctured into their nest in a circle, and Calla dared not enter it. Instead, she pushed her charge onto a spray of dark rocks beyond the yellow stone. She could hear people shouting, though she didn’t understand the words. They would come for him. They would find him here.

She turned to slip below the waves and escape the dangerous rocks—and fingers wrapped around her arm.

Warm.

Calla froze and found herself staring into blue, blue eyes. The skyman was awake. And—oh, so—so very—

Geh nicht,” he said, all ajumble and alien.

“I—I don’t understand,” she breathed, and that beautiful face frowned.

Mother had never said they were so beautiful. So—so much like merfolk. His skin on her arm was warm, like a southerly current, but so lacking in water that it felt strange and rasping, rough yet smooth all at once. His face was pale and marked in tiny dark spots over a straight nose. Bright hair streamed from his head, heavy and hanging down. Like—like her own. It didn’t float up here, above the sky, and it was a brilliant, reddish-gold she’d never seen before.

She reached and touched it. It was clumped, soft, and slipped through her fingers.

And he kissed her.

Her arm jolted as if he’d struck her instead. But his fingers touched hers. Unwebbed and waterless. So alien, so strange, yet such a gentle, tender kiss she’d never felt before. She wavered. How was she supposed to breathe below the sky, now, when she knew skymen were walking above it, looking like this? Feeling like this?

Geh nicht,” he breathed again, and the kiss tightened. Their fingers rubbed. “Bitte―”

Hier drüben!”

Calla jerked. Skymen. Swarming over the rocks. They were coming.

Hilfe!”

She wrenched her arm free—and it hurt, how it hurt, the cold water washing that wondrous kiss away as she plunged below the surface and struck out, diving blindly into the depths until there was no sound but the thunder of her heart in her chest.

Then—only then, with the sky impossibly high above her once more—did she stop.

Drifted in the deep.

And clutched the hand he’d kissed to her chest, as though she could preserve the feeling forever. He’d been so beautiful. He’d spoken to her. They were—courageous and wonderful, so very beautiful. Mother had only told the half of it.

Calla knew, with a fierce certainty, that she had to know the rest.

Chapter Six

“Drink.”

Janez accepted the steaming cup. It was filth, but it was hot. He drank it down, hacked, and coughed up another mouthful of dirty seawater.

“In the bucket, if you please. Sawdust hardly grows on trees.”

“Oh, but it does, Doktor,” Janez croaked and smiled benignly at the foul look cast his way.

“If you prefer the butchery of the harbour hacksaws, then by all means, seek your medicine with them,” Doktor Hauser said. “Open.”

Janez permitted the stick that shoved his tongue down, and the affronted hum. Sometimes, Janez suspected, Hauser was more put out by those who dared to be healthy than those who dared to be sick.

“I am quite fine, Doktor. Just cold.”

“You are lucky to have survived. Your greatcoat and boots saved you.”

“A sailor saved me,” Janez said, and the doctor harrumphed.

“Yes, the great swimming saviour, I was told.”

“I must thank him.”

“If you can find him. The hands that brought you up said he swam off the moment they had you.”

“To save more unfortunate souls, no doubt,” Janez creaked. He hacked again, but obediently coughed the salt up into the bucket, this time. “He must have seen me go over the edge.”

If he went back for another, he’ll have frozen to death by now,” Hauser said and then sighed in an extremely put-upon manner when a fist hammered on the door. “Those blasted sentries! My orders mean nothing—don’t you dare!” he added in a thunderous growl when Janez cast the coverlet back.

The door cracked open. “Doktor?”

“Away!” Hauser snarled, his rasping voice—usually so quiet and whispery, so understated and almost sulky—raised in a great cawing shout, like an affronted raven. “Away, lest I kill this maddening idiot prince for his own safety!”

Luckily for Hauser, the royal family fondly tolerated his temper. He had served them for most of his life, so the queen entered with little more than a benign smile and kind eyes for her brother-in-law.

“Dear Janez,” she said. “Do let Doktor work.”

“Doktor is fussing,” Janez protested and yowled when a sharp prod was delivered to his bandaged thigh.

Doktor can flush you with fouler tinctures than a warming brew,” came the waspish warning.

Queen Sofia simply smiled, her skirts rustling as she seated herself in the chair by the bed. She was the picture of composure—the very definition of beauty. Yet under the divinity ran a streak of something a little more bloodthirsty, something that echoed from the depths of a more brutal, warlike past, of their forebears pillaging the seas, man and woman alike, and terrorising the known world.

And she showed it in her soft voice saying, “The enemy are burning.”

It was sunk? The Vogel? The Ente?”

“Both safe. They have not yet returned to shore, but they can be seen.”

Janez threw back the coverlet again. “I must—”

He was felled not by Doktor Hauser, but by Sofia, who calmly plucked a pin from her perfectly coiled hair, and jammed it down onto the dressing around his thigh.

“My lady, I have rarely had the pleasure of a woman so level-headed and sensible in the art of medicine,” Hauser said—and followed it up by roughly thrusting Janez back into the pillows and handing him a cup full of dark liquid that fizzed ominously. “Drink.”

“What will it do to me?”

“If I had my way, kill you, and rid me of this impertinent child of a patient.”

“But what will it do?” Janez persisted.

“Dull the pain.”

Janez set it aside. “The pain is not so—”

“If the pain is not sufficient, I will increase it until it is,” Hauser said, and Janez picked up the cup again.

“The guards said you were brought ashore by a sailor?” the queen asked as Janez drank, and when he’d drained the vessel, he nodded. “He must be thanked. What was his name?”

“I’ve no idea,” Janez confessed. “I was half out of my mind.”

Hauser’s eyes narrowed. “Did you drown?”

I don’t know. One moment, I was staring at the belly of the beast—and remind me, Doktor, Vogel needs her bottom scraped again—”

“I cannot think of anything more urgent,” came the dry reply.

“—and the next, I was on a bit of driftwood and being shoved up onto the rocks at the point.”


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