Autumn 2007 Volume One Issue Four
Sea Child - Aliette de Bodard
Philippa sat at the edge of the sea, watching her son Eidon. He was in one of his restless moods, running from one end of the beach to the other, pretending monsters were chasing him. The wind carried to her the taste of brine, and filled her ears with the roar of the waves, the laments of drowned sailors, the songs of the mermaids. And all those were company enough for her.
Eidon was running towards her. "Mommy," he said. "Someone is here." The sea caught his voice and repeated in the whispers of the wind, "Someone is here."
Philippa rose, brushed pale sand from her skirt, and turned towards the top of the rise, where her house stood. She saw a man's silhouette against the blue of the sky. Waiting for her.
"Come," she said, and took Eidon's hand in hers. He came willingly: his eyes were on the stranger, full of curiosity.
The man stood patiently. He did not move as they approached. He wore a richly-dyed linen tunic. Tucked under his right arm was a short herald's staff, bearing the lion symbol of House Manticore -- the family that ruled the city-state of Mesnea. Near him, in the shallow canal behind the house, lay the reed boat he must have poled through the delta, all the way from Mesnea to this gods-forsaken place by the shores of the sea.
"Lady Philippa?" His quiet voice cut through the roar of the sea.
"Yes," she said.
"I bring a message from your husband, Wizard Altheos of the Manticore House."
She stood still. Eidon's hand was warm in hers, and it seemed to be the only part of her that had not turned to stone. "He left," she said. "He is no longer part of this house."
"Give me the message."
The herald smiled without joy, and said, "Those are the words Wizard Altheos entrusted to me: 'I have tried many times to tell you the truth, but you would not listen. I spent four years searching for a way to break the walls you let the sea build around your grief. I hope this is enough.'" And he held out to Philippa a wooden box.
Philippa took it in both hands. It was heavier than she had imagined, and cold. And dry. She carried it inside her small house, and laid it on the table. Eidon had followed her inside; she turned, briefly, and in the dim light saw only his father's piercing eyes and aquiline nose. Altheos, she thought. What were you thinking? You have no right to come here. No right to intrude on my happiness.
The box was hexagonal and made of cedar wood that shone as if its heart were pure light. Glyphs of power, painstakingly carved, curled from its base to the joint between the body and the lid. Philippa read them aloud: "For safekeeping against dark influences."
The lid rose to a point on which perched a merchild, with the upper body of a boy and a fish's tail instead of legs. The eyes were ebony and seemed to look into Philippa's soul.
The box swung open easily, almost eagerly, as if it were only awaiting Philippa's touch to unveil its contents.
Inside lay two things. The first was a tight knot of leather that crumbled as soon as Philippa took hold of it, leaving her with small, yellowed human bones. She had never seen them in her life, and yet they tingled in her hand, inescapably familiar, inexplicably precious.
The sea had fallen silent around her; she could no longer hear its breath as she lifted the second thing, the papyrus that had been at the heart of the box. It crackled as she unrolled it. She stared at the glyphs of power in front of her eyes, trying to make sense of them.
They read, "Come back to me, Philippa. Your child was stillborn." And beneath it her husband had signed his name, and drawn his seal, which was not a thing wizards did lightly.
"I don't understand," she said. She stared, aghast, at the bones in her hand. At her only son, Eidon, four years old, who stood by the herald's side, unquestionably alive. "I don't understand." The sea had no answer for her. Her husband's spell had silenced it.
She walked outside still holding the contents of the box. Eidon started to follow her; she turned, afraid he would hear something not meant for him. "Eidon," she said. "Stay with the man. I'll be back soon, I promise."
He looked puzzled, but did not go any further.
Once at the bottom of the rise, Philippa stood on the beach and spoke the secret name of the sea. It was high tide: the sea heard her and rose in answer, and finally she heard its familiar, reassuring voice.
"I gave you your heart's desire," the sea said.
"I can no longer remember that you gave me anything," Philippa said. She lifted the bones -- a child's bones -- to the level of her eyes.
Waves climbed the length of the beach to pool around her ankles. Their cold fingers stroked her skin like the touch of a mermaid before it drove a sailor into the watery depths.
In the pond at her feet formed the face of a woman, with algae-coloured hair streaming in the water, and eyes as black as abysses. The face spoke in the voice of the sea, quivering with each word.
"You came to me with the corpse of your stillborn child and asked for me to revive it. This was not within my power, so I made another for you."
"No," Philippa said, truly afraid now. "I have one child, and he is alive. I remember nothing of this. You lie. Altheos lies."
The sea face laughed. "Why should I lie to you? You are the one who told yourself a lie. You accepted Eidon as your own. It was easier than to remember your child had never lived."
You lie, Philippa thought, trying, desperately, to cling to her memories of Eidon as a baby suckling at her breast, as a child playing on the beach. But the sea had to speak the truth. Why should it bother to lie to her, or to collude with Altheos?
The bones lay in her hand, all too familiar: all that remained of her and Altheos's son.
Her child was dead.
She asked, softly, frightened of what the answer would be, "Then what is Eidon?"
"Coral and pearl and bones," the sea said. "Shells and algae and the foam on waves. All that I had within me to shape a human body."
"He's not human." He had never been human. What had she raised inside her house? What did she love so dearly?
"I gave him the soul of a baby who drowned in my depths. He feels as you do. He loves as you do. What difference is there? You saw none."
"My husband did," Philippa said, at last, remembering with a chill what had happened, the bitter words on either side before Altheos had gone inland. "He left because he couldn't bear to be in the same house as a sea child."
"Your husband was a coward. He spent his life piecing together old spells, and yet he dared use none of them. He found my name in his family's books of magic, and he hid because he was too frightened. He ran away from you rather than stay here."
Philippa remembered how angry she had been at Altheos. For four years she had banned his memory from her house. For four years she had believed he had abandoned both her and Eidon, and all that time the child of the sea had been growing inside her house. Growing into what? Into something that would be her undoing, something as vast and as inhuman as the sea?
Altheos had been right. Some names should never be spoken, some bargains never entered into.
The last four years of her life had been a lie. Her own, carefully built lie.
"I drove him away," she said. The sea did not answer. It had no answer. What could it know of love or of its meaning? Only by the last, fleeting regret of a drowning sailor for a wife left on land would love ever make its way into the halls of the depths.
She walked away from the sea, back to her house. Eidon ran up to her. "Mommy, look at what I've found!"
His voice, his gaze were those of an eager four-year-old, and for a moment she wanted to smile at him. But then she remembered, with a jolt: he wasn't four years old. He'd never been a child.
She gazed, briefly, at the shell he held in his hand -- a slender one in the shape of a horn. "Yes, it's very nice, sweetheart," she said, her mind still reeling from her conversation with the sea.
Eidon, dissatisfied at the lack of enthusiasm, ran to the herald instead. She saw him visibly flinch as Eidon approached, and then his face smoothened into an expressionless mask. He knew, then, what Altheos's message contained. He knew what Eidon was.
"Look," Eidon said, proudly, holding up his seashell to him.
The herald did not answer for a while. He looked at Philippa, and then back to Eidon. "You have a talent for finding shells," he said.
"I've got a collection," Eidon said. "The sea leaves lots of things on the beach. I can show you."
"Another time, perhaps," the herald said. "I think your mother wants to speak to me."
Philippa was looking at Eidon, and for a moment she thought she saw a flash of green in his blue eyes, a murky green the colour the depths. No. She was imagining things. But her son was made of things from the sea, made of her longing and her anger, and he had nothing from Altheos in him. Nothing at all.
She came closer, giving a wide berth to Eidon without meaning to. "I've read the message," she said. "Does Altheos require an answer?"
Come back to me, her husband had written. "I can't tell you now."
The herald shrugged. "I can wait." Overhead, the sky had turned golden; the sun hung over the sea like a swollen eye, and it would not be long before it sank into the waters. "It is far too late for me to start the journey to Mesnea," he said, gesturing to his paltry reed boat.
"There's no other place here," Philippa said. "You'll have to stay for the night."
He bowed, deeply. "Thank you, my Lady. I will be honoured. My name is Thar."
Thar. She tasted the strangeness of it on her tongue. "It's not a Mesnean name."
"No," Thar said. He sounded almost ashamed. "My family comes from Aseraf, in the east. We settled in Mesnea twenty years ago, after the civil war. It was around the time when House Manticore rose to power in the city."
"You weren't long in Mesnea, and yet they trust you with messages," Philippa said, curious.
"Yes," Thar said, and said no more. Philippa shrugged; it was none of her concern, after all.
She looked around for Eidon. He had wandered off with his seashell still in his hand, and was standing in the surf, his face turned towards the sea. She knew he would stay there for hours, unmoving, unheeding of her calls. And for the first time she wondered whether he was longing for the sea in which he'd been born.
No, not born. Made. Made to replace her dead son. A chill ran through her; she quelled it as she turned away from Eidon, and led Thar inside her house.
Philippa put the bones back in Altheos's box, and carried it from the main room to her bedroom, so she would not see it -- as if she would forget what it held, what the sea had confirmed.
She found some bread for Thar, and a clay cup she filled with barley beer. He ate in silence. At some point during the meal her child -- not, not her child, never her child -- came into the room, leaving a trail of wet sand on the ground. He sat cross-legged, silently watching the stranger, his face expressionless. She made no move to hold him in her arms. Altheos's spell still held; she could not hear the sea inside the house. It was an odd feeling.
At length, weary of the interminable silence, she said, "How much did Altheos tell you?"
Thar raised his dark gaze to look at her. "What I needed to know. That he left you four years ago, and never saw you since."
"You know him?"
Thar shrugged. "There are many wizards in House Manticore. Now that the invaders have been thrown out and wizards are no longer persecuted, the lords are trying to rebuild the Great Library of Magic that was once Mesnea's pride. Many wizards have come out of hiding, bringing with them their old books of magic."
"Altheos," Thar said, his face a mask. "Wizards have no friends, not even among their own kind, and Altheos is no exception. But I do know him more than most men."
"He must have changed," Philippa said. The Altheos she had known had been content to live in obscurity, seeking only to understand the magic of his ancestors, not to use the great spells. He had been wary of House Manticore's promise to restore the glory of Mesnea. She felt, abruptly, a deep longing for her husband, for the times without bitterness, without sorrow or grievances. She needed, more than ever, someone she could talk to, and Altheos, cowardly to the last, had sent only this shadow of himself.
"I do not know what he was like when he lived with you," Thar said. "The man I know is silent and dour, little inclined to open his heart."
"Not so changed, then." Or perhaps, deep inside, he remembered the angry words they had exchanged, remembered how right he had been, and yet how powerless. "I should go back to him," she said, slowly.
"He asked for this," Thar said. "And he will truly rejoice when he sees you."
"I know." She could gather her things, and leave at dawn on Thar's boat, go inland to Mesnea, where the sea had no reach. She could leave Eidon behind. It would not be hard, after all: even the mother's love she had felt for four years was false. "But I will have no place in House Manticore."
"You are Altheos's wife. That will be more than enough for them." Thar laid his cup aside, and bent to look at her. "He said you were beautiful. He was not far wrong."
"You presume," she said, coldly.
"I have said far worse things to people far more powerful than you."
"I called the sea," Philippa reminded him.
"You did. But tonight, in this house, the sea has no voice. That is Altheos's gift to you."
"Yes," Philippa said. Her eyes had started to sting, but she held herself upright, and kept her voice firm. "I remember. He held out my son to me, and told me he was dead and there was nothing to be done. So much pain to bring my baby into the world, and all of it came to nothing. I hated Altheos then. I don't know whether I still do."
"He has no hatred for you," Thar said. He had crossed his arms as if to maintain a distance between both of them. "He wants you to return to him."
Philippa heard what Thar had not said. He still loves you. He had forgiven her. She did not deserve that. Come back to me, Philippa. He believed they could be both be happy again, as they had been before her son's stillbirth.
"How could I have forgotten everything?" she asked.
"Because you wanted to," Thar said. "And because the sea erases everything in the end. It gnaws at cliffs until they collapse, and rolls rocks against each other until they become the grainy sand of its beaches. Its destiny is to rise and cover the land. It was such a small matter for it to keep you ignorant."
"Why would it want to?"
"I don't pretend to have the answer," Thar said. "All I know is that bargains with anything of power are not entered into lightly. And perhaps," he said, looking at Eidon, who was still looking at him with an unwavering gaze, "that what you get is never what you bargained for."
"I wanted a child," Philippa said. "I fought so hard to bring him into the world, and in the end I had nothing but a bloody corpse. Is it so hard to understand why I called the sea?"
"To understand, no," Thar said. He raised his cup, and drained it to the dregs. "To forgive, harder, I suppose."
"Altheos has forgiven me," Philippa said.
She rose, and went to Eidon. "Time for bed."
His face puckered in a frown. "I'm not sleepy."
"You should be," Philippa said. "It's very late, and you've had a long day."
He appeared to consider this for a while.
"Eidon," Philippa said. "Come to bed."
"I want a story," Eidon said.
"I'll tell you one."
"No," Eidon said. "I want to hear a new story." He turned his gaze to Thar, asked him, "Will you tell me one?"
Thar sat in the same position she'd left him. He watched Philippa, warily, but did not speak.
"Well?" she asked.
Thar's face revealed nothing of his thoughts, but she remembered how he'd flinched away from Eidon in the afternoon. "I'm no storyteller, Lady Philippa," he said.
"It's not hard," she said, vaguely exasperated by his fear. "He doesn't ask for much from you, and even that little you won't give him."
Thar said nothing. He was watching her with an intensity that made her uncomfortable.
"You're such a courageous man," Philippa snapped.
She said to Eidon, "I'm sorry. He doesn't know any stories. I'll make up a new one for you."
Eidon nodded, although he still looked disappointed.
She picked him up, set him in his bed by the hearth. He settled himself against the tamarisk headrest with a sigh of contentment, and stared at her, waiting for her words.
She tried to maintain the fear she had had in the afternoon, when she had found out what he truly was, but it was hard. She had raised him, had nursed him at her breast, had comforted him when he had feared the darkness. She had watched him take his first, halting steps on the beach.
"Once upon a time," she said, "there was a boy who lived in a forest of stone..."
Her mind couldn't focus on the story she was telling, and she started making mistakes after a while. Eidon, who already had trouble keeping his eyes open, didn't protest.
Coral and pearl and bones, the sea had said. What had she given to the sea in return for him?
She did not remember. She should fear whatever Eidon truly was.
She stopped well before the end of the story: Eidon had fallen asleep. She watched him for a while. He looked so vulnerable, so human she thought her heart would burst. He was her son. And it went beyond logic, beyond reason. She should have been afraid, but all she felt was a deep, abiding tenderness.
She showed Thar inside her room, and let him prepare himself for the night. She did not speak to him; she merely retrieved her shawl from the bed. Then she left him, and went to sleep on the ground in the corner of the main room, away both from him and from Eidon.
Her sleep was restless; she woke several times, hearing the crickets sing to her, a sound that the sea had always drowned before. Her husband's spell had silenced the crash of the waves. It was wrong. It was not what the house should have sounded like.
Towards dawn, she dreamt of Altheos. He was standing on the beach, shouting something she could not hear, and she clung to Eidon and did not move as the tide swept Altheos away.
She woke up with a start. Someone stood silhouetted against the window, barely distinguishable in the light of the rising sun. For a moment she thought a bandit had entered her house, and then she remembered. The box. Her husband's message.
"Thar?" she whispered. "You're up early."
He did not move. He said, whispering as well, "The sun has just risen, and the tide is at low ebb. You can see all the beach."
Something in the tone of his voice worried her. "You didn't wake me up to talk about the landscape," she said.
Her heart sank. She said, slowly, "There was a second message, wasn't there? Something you didn't tell me."
"Yes. Wizard Altheos said that, if you chose to come back to Mesnea with me, there was one thing you needed to do."
Philippa rose in her stiff night-clothes, and joined Thar at the window. The sunlight turned the vast expanse of sand golden; the sea itself, at the low end of the beach's slope, was almost invisible. "I know what he wants," she said. "He asks for too much."
Thar said nothing for a while. At length he slipped something cold and sharp into her hand. She knew what it was without looking at it. "I am sorry," he said. "But you do not know what this child will grow up to be. That is the price to pay before you leave."
"What do you fear? He is a child."
"A sea child," Thar corrected. "His memories are far older than human ones. And what will happen when he goes inland, to Mesnea, to Aseraf, to all those countries where the sea should have no reach?"
"You're so sure of yourself," Philippa said, coldly. "What if Altheos was wrong? What if the sea only wanted to help me?"
Thar shook his head. "Then he will have died for nothing. But it is better to be safe, Lady Philippa. Better to strike now, before it is too late."
It chilled her, the way he could casually ask her to kill her own child as well as an innocent. "You truly think that?"
"I am not allowed to think," Thar said. "I deliver messages."
"Not allowed to think?" she spat. "You were free enough with your opinions yesterday."
"Philippa -- "
"No," she said, waving him away. "You've brought your message to me. It's enough. Whatever happens next is by my choice. Leave me."
"I will wait outside," Thar said, and his gaze lingered on her a moment more than it should have. There was an almost morbid curiosity in it, as if he was fascinated by the choice laid out before her.
Philippa heard the door close, but did not turn around. She raised to the light the dagger her husband had sent her, feeling the thrill of magic that coursed up her arm, the tingling sensation in its wake. The dagger's pommel had the shape of a crescent, and glyphs of power ran along the bronze blade. They read, For the destruction of the dark.
Altheos, she thought. Husband mine. You were always the one to see the world in terms of power. Perhaps I was too naive to live in your world. And you, for all your wisdom, too cynical to live in a world where dead children can be brought back to life.
She wished she could speak to the sea, but it was at its lowest, and not even the name she had found in Altheos' book would be enough to draw it to her. Which was, of course, the reason Thar had waited for so long before handing her Altheos' final message.
Dagger in hand, she crossed the room. Eidon was still sleeping. He had moved during the night, and dislodged the tamarisk headrest, which now lay on the ground.
Thar had said, you do not know what such children will grow up to be. And she had to agree with that. She feared her son, what he was, what he would become. And she did remember that the sea always drove treacherous bargains.
But she also remembered sitting by the hearth with Eidon on her knees, and weaving a story for him, remembered how he had clapped his hands with delight at each incident, each narrow escape of the heroes. She remembered singing lullabies to him, and how she had marvelled when he had spoken his first words.
I -- Philippa thought. Now is the time, Altheos said in her mind, as the magic in the knife surged within her hand. But she could not bring the blade down. For a long time she remained where she was.
She moved at last. Something, the rustle of her tunic, the movement she made with the blade, the sharp intake of breath as she raised it, woke Eidon up. "Mommy?" he asked. She saw only puzzlement in his eyes.
In that moment she had her answer. She could not do it. Even if Thar was right, even if her son was inhuman, he would still cry out like a human child when she struck, still look at her as he died, not understanding why she had killed him. He was still her child.
She could not do it.
"It's nothing." The dagger slipped between her fingers and fell to the floor. "I'm sorry I woke you up. Go back to sleep."
She bent down to retrieve the blade. The metal seemed to be beating on the same panicked rhythm as her heart. It was all she could do not to run from the room, screaming at Thar, at Altheos, at all those who did not understand a mother's feelings.
She went back to her room, and retrieved the box from the ground, where she had laid it on the previous night. Inside, the bones of her dead child lay side by side with the papyrus that had shattered her world. The papyrus that had offered forgiveness. Such a small thing, Altheos or Thar would have said. A sea-child. Something false, something dangerous. You know that the sea has been keeping you in the dark for years. There has to be a reason.
You're not the ones who have to kill your own child, Philippa thought, her eyes still on the yellowed bones Altheos had stolen from the house. That's the one thing I can't do, not even to quell my own fears.
Thar was waiting outside, by the canal. His herald's staff was already at the bottom of his reed boat; everything said he was ready to leave. She held out the dagger to him. "I can't do it," she said.
He did not answer at once. His eyes held her, weary, cynical, but he seemed reluctant to take the blade, as if it would burn him. "I have failed, then."
"I don't care," Philippa said. "I can't kill my own child. Tell Altheos that, although I doubt he'll understand."
"Eidon is not your son," Thar said as he took the dagger from her. "I had hoped you would find the courage to kill him."
"Never," she said. And she left him standing in the sunlight with the useless dagger in his hand.
Once inside her house, Philippa methodically removed every trace of Thar's passage. She put away the clay cup he had used, threw out the bread she had cut for him, little caring that it would mean one more forage into the marshes for wild barley and emmer wheat.
Only when she was done did she notice the silence inside the house.
"Eidon?" she called, but heard no answer. She remembered Thar's words: I have failed. He was Altheos's servant, in everything: he would seek to fulfil his master's wishes.
She did not even pause to think on that. She ran out of her house and onto the beach, and the first thing she saw was Eidon, playing with pebbles by the tideline. He was safe.
Thar stood a little way from him, twirling the bronze dagger in his hands. He had not seen her; his gaze was turned towards Eidon. At last he seemed to come to a decision, and stepped forward.
Philippa, too, moved. She ran down the length of the beach, and stood between him and Eidon.
"You will not do this," she said, her voice cold.
Thar lowered the dagger. "You leave me no choice, Philippa."
And then she understood. Philippa. He had called her Philippa, and more than once. Not Lady Philippa, as a true herald should have done.
"You're not Thar," she said. Her stomach felt hollow.
He shook his head. "Thar doesn't exist," he said, and his face seemed to melt away in the sunlight, until nothing of the dark-eyed herald remained. A mask, Philippa thought, chilled. And under the mask . . .
He had not changed in four years. Perhaps there was a little more grey in his hair, and a few more lines on his weather-beaten face. But he was still the same man Philippa had screamed at, the same man who had run away from her house four years ago. And now he had returned.
"You -- " she said, trying to keep the rage from her voice. "You dare to come here and toy with me."
"I did not," Altheos said. His hand, the one that did not hold the dagger, reached towards her, but stopped short of touching her. "I had to know, Philippa. I had to know whether you were -- "
"Ready to kill my own son? Do you realise what you asked of me?"
Altheos made an odd gesture with his hands -- she thought it the beginning of a spell, and then realised he likely had no magic left in him. Weaving the spell of silence and the spell of disguise had taxed him. "I did not think. I am sorry. It is not something you have to do. I am the one who failed, four years ago. I am the one who should do this."
"No," Philippa said. "You can tell me all you want about him, but he is my son. You will not pass. You will not lay a finger on him while I can still fight."
"Your son is dead," Altheos whispered. "Our son is dead. What you have raised in your house those past four years is something that should not even have a human shape. How long can you keep lying to yourself?"
"I raised him," Philippa said. "I watched him speak his first words, take his first steps. I know what he is, all of it." A tug on her skirt caught her attention: Eidon stood next to her, looking from her to Altheos, puzzled. She did not answer.
"You're blind," Altheos said, sadly. "Your love for Eidon keeps you in darkness, where the sea wants you to be. Let me pass. Let me strike, and end it. You will be free. You will be yourself again."
She glanced around her. Eidon still stood near her, clinging to her skirt. His face was fearful. Gently, she shook him off.
"I am sorry," Altheos said, hefting the dagger. She knew what he planned to do: he would cast her aside, and strike.
She threw herself on him before he had the time to move, knocking the dagger from his hand. "Eidon! Run!" she screamed.
She barely heard him. The world had shrunk to a blur of cloth, of hands and feet, a tangle of flesh. Altheos had lost his blade; she did not know where it was. On the wet sand they tumbled and rolled, trying to strike at each other. What could she do? Words had deserted her; all she remained was a deep, incoherent rage. He wanted me to kill my son.
But Altheos's hands locked onto her wrists, and he held her to the ground, almost effortlessly.
"Philippa," he whispered. "I am sorry. It is the only way I know to keep you from interfering." He shifted positions, so that only his right hand held her wrists, and started weaving a pattern with his left hand, muttering words that brought numbness into her body. It cost him to cast this spell, she saw: his gestures were unsteady, his voice shaking. But still she could not fight him, could not even move.
She had lost.
"Mommy!" Eidon screamed, from some impossibly faraway place. It wasn't the tone of a child, but an utterly adult, agonized cry. "No!" His voice rose, became harsher, sibilant: the next word he uttered meant nothing to Philippa.
But she was filled, in its wake, by a sense of something immense rising. She had time to see the same feeling in Altheos's eyes, before the sea rose to cover them both.
It battered her. Wave after wave relentlessly eroded the layers of her being until nothing was left. Her lungs were empty; she arched backwards to open her mouth. Only brine filled it, brine she was unable to cough out. Altheos's hand still held her wrists, but currents tugged at him. Soon his touch faded, and nothing was left but the numbing cold, rising to take her whole.
Two slithery hands grabbed hold of her, and pushed her upwards with a gurgling scream. She emerged into the blinding sunlight, and found herself kneeling on the beach, coughing out seawater.
Someone bent over her. "Mother? Mother, can you stand up?"
It was Eidon. Or something that looked like him. His voice was deeper and more adult than it should have been, and tinged with the faintest hint of gull-cries.
She rose, slowly. Eidon stood near her, the sea lapping at his feet. "Mother," he said. "I'm so happy. I was afraid you'd drown, too."
Beside her son was Altheos. He lay facedown on the sand, and it was obvious he was dead. She ought to have felt something: sadness, grief. Anger. But the sea's cold, it seemed, had spread to her heart.
Within the ocean, the thing that had saved her leapt from wave to wave, with shrill cries of delight: a merchild, like the one on the cedarwood box.
"You..." she said, slowly, to Eidon.
"I had to choose. It was the only thing I could do to help you." It wasn't the voice or the words of a four-year-old.
"No," Philippa said, frightened by what he had become.
"Till the last moment, I hoped you would defeat him," Eidon said. "I hoped I wouldn't have to reveal myself. I thought he'd be gone soon, and everything back to what it was. I -- I'm sorry I waited so long." In the sunlight, the skin of his face shone with iridescent scales.
His voice was toneless. "Everything the wizard said I was." His eyes were green now, the murky green of the depths.
"Elemental," she said, tasting algae and brine on her tongue.
"Yes," he said.
"Why?" It could have meant so many things: why Altheos lay dead on the beach, why she stood by her son's side, knowing what he was, and yet could feel nothing, not even fear.
But Eidon said, "Why you? Because you asked for a son. Because the sea knew you would love me."
"And you did not love me."
His face twisted, as if he were about to cry. She ached to hold him in her arms, but could not will herself to come closer to him. "You don't understand, Mother," he said. "The sea made me, but I have a human soul. You raised me and cared for me and sang me to sleep at night. Do you think it was easy for me, belonging to two worlds at once?" He wrapped, however inadequately, his small hands around hers. "I am sorry. I would have waited if he had not come. I would have given us a few more years."
"A few more years of a lie?"
He shook his head, forcefully. "Don't say that. It wasn't a lie. Never. But I cannot stay here. What one wizard found, another can easily track down. They will leave me no peace. They will leave you no peace."
"We could move elsewhere," Philippa said, desperately. "There has to be some place where House Manticore won't find us."
"I have revealed my powers," Eidon said. "I'll leave a trail of sea magic from here to wherever we go. It is too late, Mother."
"I don't understand."
He raised his gaze to her. The sun created green highlights in his hair. "This is beyond you, or even me. It has been foreseen: one day the sea will rise and cover all this land, from the delta to Mesnea, from Mesnea to Aseraf and beyond. Fish will dart over the sunken remnants of reed boats, octopuses will shelter in the great palaces, and the fields shall be of algae, rather than wheat or barley.
"I was made to go inland, where the sea has no power. I was to topple the wizards who would oppose the coming of the sea."
"That is no longer my name," he said, sadly. "I did not want things to change so soon. I liked being your son -- very much so."
It was, she knew, all that she would ever get as gratitude. She had no words. His eyes with the depths of the sea held her transfixed. He withdrew his hands, took a step backwards, and still she could not find it in her to move away.
"What will you do?" Philippa asked. "Leave on your own?"
"Yes. Where I go," Eidon said, "you cannot follow."
"Where you go?"
He smiled, displaying teeth the colour of nacre. "Back to where I came from. 'Coral and pearls and bones. Shell and algae and the foam on waves.' That is all I am, and everything made by the sea must return to it. I -- I have failed, and must bide my time."
"I raised you," Philippa said, and it seemed to her that her voice was not enough to hold the abyss of her despair. "I took care of you for four years. What am I to do without you?"
"Go inland," Eidon said. He was not looking at her any more, but at the sea, and his voice held a hunger that had not been there before. "Find another village, far away from the sea, where you'll be safe. Forget me. I'm sorry. But there is no other way."
"Will I see you again?" Philippa managed to keep every trace of sorrow from her voice.
"In your lifetime I shall rise again on these shores," Eidon said, his voice taking on the cadences of prophecy. "I shall be given flesh once more, but you will not recognise me, even though your heart will not have ceased to long for me. Go inland, Mother. Please. Make yourself a new life."
She could give no answer to that. She bent, instead, to kiss him. His skin was cold under her lips, like that of a drowned man.
"Good-bye, Mother," Eidon said, his voice filled with the anger of storms, and the relentless dance of the waves.
She stood away from her child, and watched him walk into the sea. Each step he took left a wet imprint on the sand, with foam pooling at the heel, and a flock of gulls wheeled over his head as if crowning him with cries.
Knee-deep in water, he stopped to face her. His eyes were wet with tears, like those of a human child, and his voice shook a little. "I won't forget you, Mother, not ever. I promise," he said, and then he averted his gaze from her, and entered the sea.
She watched until the water had risen to cover him whole, and nothing reminded her that he had ever been there.
And then she turned away from the sea, and walked past the footmarks on the sand, past the still body of Altheos facedown on the beach, and went inside her house, to begin the long years of waiting.
- END -
Aliette de Bodard is a speculative fiction writer who moonlights as an Applied Maths engineer by day. She lives in Paris, France. Her short fiction has appeared in Abyss and Apex, and is forthcoming in Interzone and in Writers of the Future XXIII. Visit her website at www.aliettedebodard.com.