Daddy, tell me a story. Tell me about Mother.
What about her?
What did she look like?
Strong fingers stroke through my hair, tap at the base of my neck, slip down over my shoulder. Like you, princess. Exactly like you.
I knew I’d love my city long before I saw it. On my seventeenth birthday I stood before my father in his inland palace, so far from the coast that I could never see the ocean. If you love me, build me a city in the sea, close to the home of my mother. I paid a handful of poets to put those words in my mouth. They earned their money. They sang me tall and proud and regal, the worthy daughter of a great king.
Father, please. I beg you. I’ve never asked for anything. You are good and generous and all men love you. Yes, all women too, yes, I love you, Father, I love you, I love you more than any other. Please. For my sake. If you love me.
I always liked the poets’ version better.
He liked to be generous, when it didn’t cost him. He refused until I promised to keep a room always ready for him in my palace. I will gild the walls and cover the floor with soft velvet rugs. You will have the best view, the closest room to mine. You can come and visit me whenever you like.
Then he smiled at me—his only child, the image of his long-vanished sorceress wife—and said, “If my princess Dahut wants a city, she will have it.”
It took six long years of brick and incantations, which he wouldn’t allow me to hear, to build the great circular seawall that would ring the city and hold back the ocean. Then half a year to drain the water left within the wall, and two more to build the palace itself. “You will ruin me,” said my father. He wrapped a strand of my red hair around his finger; it looked almost brown against his bright scarlet tunic. “Are you sure you still want to go so far away?”
“I couldn’t waste all your work,” I said. “And when it’s finished, everyone will remember who built a city in the middle of the ocean and walled out the waters. It will be your greatest monument.”
“That’s true,” he said thoughtfully. His fingertip was cold on my neck; my hair around it scratched my skin. “What a good girl you are.”
I always knew he told the workers to take their time. He always knew I would never ask about it.
When I was twenty-five and it was done at last, we rode on one horse to the coast. Once I had fit easily before or behind my father, but his horse could not bear two full-grown people with ease. My father ignored this. His horse, like his daughter, had to bend to his will.
He set me behind him; he liked to feel my arms around him. For once I didn’t mind. I turned my face toward the coast and thought only of my city.
I smelled the sea before I heard or saw it. The bite of salt in the air made me giddy. Air is heavier by the sea; it carries the weight of water and brine. I thought then that if I fell here, the air could hold me up.
(Perhaps my mother had felt like this when she left us to go home? If so, I understood now. One day I might even forgive her.)
The peaked roofs of my city in the distance stood high above the waves. At first I couldn’t see the seawall, only the white stone of the palace glowing in the sunlight. It was larger than I had expected; I counted five spires and four colonnades, with plenty of space between them. Then as we rode closer, I saw the seawall over my father’s shoulder: a smooth wall of red granite, polished to gleaming, wrapping itself like a protective arm around those towering spires. The waves swept along and around it in a fruitless assault.
It was a miracle of engineering and magic, but I saw only that glowing arm offering me safety. My grip tightened around my father’s waist. “Steady now,” he said, as he might to his horse. “You haven’t seen the city yet.”
“I love it already,” I whispered.
And I did: my city, standing red and proud against the desperate ocean, with the causeway shining wet above the mudflats revealed by the low tide. Out beyond the causeway there was only sea and stone, and the magic that held them apart to make a space for me. Every step of the horses brought me closer to it. I took slow careful breaths to calm my pounding heart.
My father unlocked the causeway gate with the key around his neck, and I slipped off the back of his horse to see my city. The entire city was built in stone and brick—no sense using wood when it would only crack in the salt air. Up close, I saw the graceful arching bridges that connected the buildings whose spires I’d spotted from the shore. Intricate brickwork crept like lace across their facades and twisted around the columns that supported a pleasure garden thick with heather and bright yellow gorse. I closed my eyes; the gorse’s sweetness nearly overwhelmed the tang of the salt air.
The ocean roared in vain beyond the wall. Nothing here reminded me of my father’s palace. I felt the cobblestones tremble under my feet where I stood, and a song hummed under my skin, echoing the rhythm of the sea as it rushed against the wall. I knew with a certainty that weakened my knees that I had found home.
“Do you like it, Dahut?” my father asked.
“Oh, yes,” I said. “It’s magnificent. It’s even better than I dreamed of. Father, I can never thank you enough.” I sank to my knees before his horse, and I didn’t even resent the outpouring of emotion he required of me. I stood in my city at last, and no matter what else happened, I was grateful to him for that.
So I smiled, and looked up at him from where I knelt on the cobbles, and invited the retinue to stay the night in my new palace. He gave a startled laugh before he accepted, as if for a moment he had seen someone else wearing me like a new dress.
Father, tell me a story.
Moonlight glints on the bedpost’s silver filigree. Waves rumble outside my window in a rhythm almost musical. I’ve heard that song ever since I came here. At first it soothed me; now it seems to want something from me, something I don’t have or can’t give. Haven’t I given enough just to be here, at last? I tell myself that the song can’t reach me, and I try to believe that.
He gathers me against his chest. What kind of story, princess?
Keep the song out of my head. Any kind you want.
I had servants, of course – a whole army of them, exiled to the ocean palace of Ys so that I never had to lift a finger. I summoned what courage I had and asked them to teach me anyway: how to cook, how to paint, how to carve stone. They lifted knowing eyebrows when I shied away from their hands on mine, said nothing, and taught me without touch. I snipped fragrant yellow blooms from the garden and made gorse wine, and took a jug of it to the masons who replaced the cobbles that my father’s horse kicked loose after every visit.
I liked relying on the work of my hands when I could. I liked the thought of my lost mother’s image soaking oats and spattering her clothes with paint like a normal woman, not a morgen with sea magic in her fingers. Even better, eventually, I liked how my servants would look at me. It took time before I learned not to flinch away, but when I understood that they offered me respect, I felt as if I were learning how to breathe.
And people began coming to my city. My father, of course, whenever he could find the time, but he would take back rugs and pots and jewelry that we’d made, my servants and I. Word spread of the creations of my city in the sea, but I only learned of our reputation when the first artisans shuffled nervously down the causeway at low tide, lifting their handiwork out of the way of the waves. Then came merchants with their sacks of materials; then bookkeepers, to skim off a cut of the profits; then two families who opened competing taverns and each swore they brewed the better heather ale. I kept to my palace and my garden—I didn’t want to face such numbers—but I heard the laughter in the streets below, and it made me smile.
Sometimes I would see a figure crossing the causeway and recognize something in them: a hunched gait, a nervous turn of the head, or simply a dead-eyed stare straight ahead. If my father wasn’t in residence, I would let those people in too, no matter their trade or their history. I never knew where they found lodging; I didn’t want to pry. It was enough that I could share my shelter with them.
Only magicians were banned from Ys, by my father’s order; he promised me he’d send his own if I ever needed them. But whenever he came riding across the causeway, he always said he came here for a rest from ruling and that magicians demanded the very things he was escaping from. Even if he had ever brought a magician, I would not have known; he had kept me far from their craft as long as I could remember.
And so the city’s spells aged, and after two years a storm tore cracks in the magic that held the seawall together. My city trembled and screamed as the waves battered the granite. I felt it in my garden: the heather bushes shivering and rustling deep in their bed, and a shrill keen no one else heard that drilled pain into the back of my skull. Other people, in their homes or even in the streets—unwise, during a storm—ducked falling tiles and staggered over heaving floors. We clung to anything that offered the illusion of stability and choked on fears we couldn’t voice.
The wall still held when the storm waned, but the sea-quake had frightened us all. That night, as soon as my hands stopped shaking, I wrote a letter to my father, asking him to send a magician. I sealed it with the imprint of my thumb in the warm wax; he always said that a caress, even at a remove, was better than a cold signet. The sea had calmed a little, beating its strange almost-song against the granite wall.
I laid my palms flat on my writing table. It felt sturdy, but it would shudder and smash and lose to the next quake. As would the wall; as would everyone in my city. Unless someone tried to stop it. A morgen’s daughter, perhaps, who had heard the sea calling for her but had let fear keep her silent.
I closed my eyes. Nothing had changed; I was still not my mother. But all I could hear now was the sea, whispering in a rhythm that matched my heartbeat and slid under my teeth.
I could go to the door. If there was a guard outside, he might stop me. Perhaps just facing it would silence the song.
There was a guard. I didn’t know his name; I’d never spoken with the men who stood outside my door and pretended nothing was wrong. My head throbbed with the song. I thought in a sick instant of how I would despise myself if I went back into my room, shut the door, and listened to that song all night without doing anything. My stomach twisted, but I bit the inside of my cheek and said, “I am going down to the seawall.”
“It’s not safe,” the guard said.
“Then you may come with me.”
He offered no more resistance. I walked ahead, my shoulders stiff, trying not to let him see how little courage I really had.
My room, high up in the central tower, did not connect directly to the wall. I had to lead him down flights of cold stone stairs and up a few more. Once I thought with panic that I’d gotten lost in my own palace, that he would know it and insist I return. But he only followed, his gaze prickling the hair on my arms, and said nothing, and in half an hour I stood on the seawall. Inky black waves churned below me, stretching further than I could ever spread my arms. A cool breeze blew over the sweat on the back of my neck. Spray lashed my face and soaked into the hem of my wool cloak. The song still hummed in my head, but it didn’t hurt anymore. I felt as if I could stand out here all night, looking at the open water and the glittering sky; as if I didn’t need protection so long as I had this instead. Moonlight gleamed on the guard’s cheeks when I turned back to him. “Stay back, please,” I said. “I would like some privacy.” He retreated into the darkness.
The seawall rose to my waist. The waves darkened the granite beyond my reach. My teeth ached as I set my hands flat on the smooth-weathered wall: something wrong here, something broken, and I could feel it. My heart jumped against my ribs; the ocean filled my ears. I gripped the wall and leaned down, slow and jerky, shaking with more than I knew how to name. An icy wave lashed impossibly high and swallowed my right arm to the elbow.
And I felt the sea sing in my bones. My arm vibrated with it. The sound thrilled through me, wild and uncompromising and everything I wasn’t. My fingers curled around the silky white-topped wave as it sank away, the water slipping through my futile grasp.
I straightened carefully, fingers inching over slick granite. In the darkness, my hand glimmered silver with more than moonlight sinking into my knuckles and the lines of my palm. Breathless, I touched the seawall again with my silvery hand. Heat stung my palm as magic trickled out from my fingers into the cracks of the spells, weakening me until I had to grip the wall with my free, ordinary hand. The ache in my teeth subsided, and I could breathe again.
“Princess!” The guard, behind me. I flinched as his footsteps pounded over the stone; how much had he seen, what could he tell my father? I balled my right hand and hid it inside my cloak. “Are you all right? You nearly went over.”
Fear tasted like salt in my mouth. “I’m fine,” I said. “Please stay back. I’m in no danger.”
Only the finest threads of silver still laced my palm when I opened it again. And the seawall held firmer now. I blew out a soundless breath. My mother’s daughter, then, in more than my looks. No wonder my father had kept me from his magicians.
Don’t you want a story tonight, princess?
Father, I’m so tired. Maybe tomorrow.
What a shame. I had such a nice one for you. I can smell him as he leans closer: salt and sweat and horse, and something underneath that is purely him. No, I think I have to tell you this one right now. Stay awake a little longer, sweetheart. Your king commands it.
I sang with the sea for almost a year. Half the time I didn’t know what I did, but eventually my skin would silver with magic and I could direct it with a thought. Nearly every night, I went to the seawall with a guard far behind, and the waves rose up to meet me. They lapped like friends at my palm; I never wanted to shrink away from their touch.
After six months, I could see the spells that held the granite blocks together even stronger than the mortar that bound them. The spells turned the wall into a reef above water, strong and sturdy and alive, each block of stone woven to the next. I would run my hand over the inside of the wall; silver marks glowed faintly in its trail, flaring in signs and runes older than the kingdom. I would flatten my hand on the stone and feel the surge of prickling heat as the spell took new energy from my will. The loss of magic made me stagger, but less each time, and even when it drained me I always knew I could find more of myself to give it.
In the end, my city betrayed me, with gossip and talk and letters sent to the mainland. I hadn’t forgotten how to be careful—I always brought a guard up to the seawall—but how things looked always mattered more than their truth. If I had been thinking properly, I would have been too afraid to go up to the wall so often, but happiness had dulled my fear.
So he came back, all in red, storming up the causeway on his black horse. I heard the watchtower’s brass bell ring four times—always four chimes for him—and knew then how foolish I’d been to think I could have anything he couldn’t take. I opened my door and saw the guard outside staring ahead, his face carefully blank. “Bar the gate,” I said, my voice thin. He didn’t move, didn’t even blink. I looked down at the people I had sheltered, small as ants below my tower. They turned away and made room for his careening horse.
Nothing but the bells in my ears then, not even the song of the sea; nothing but him in my eyes, even before he threw open the door to my room. My room, not even his next door.
“Are you working magic?” he said. His fingers bit deep into the flesh of my arms, and I had no silver threads in my hands to force him to let go. “Answer me!” He shook me. My teeth slammed down on the side of my tongue; I tasted blood, hot and salty.
“Yes, Father,” I said; he hated when I only nodded or shook my head. How stupid I’d been, not remembering what he hated.
He pulled me close against him, his collarbone hard against my forehead. I stood stiff and shaking in his arms. He never struck me, never left marks, rarely raised his voice. This was worse. “Oh, princess,” he said softly. “How can you not understand? This was why your mother left. Her magic called to her even more strongly than her love for me. She left you here with me to preserve something of herself that was untouched by magic. All your life I protected you from it, but now you’ve stained yourself.”
He said it so lovingly. I squeezed my eyes shut, but the tears came anyway, on cue, just as he wanted them, just as I knew to produce them. Then he got to tip my face up and kiss them away, one by one, his hands so gentle now on my skin. “Only one thing to do, sweet girl,” he said. “You must never learn another spell. You must forget all the magic you know. Will you do that for me? Will you be my good little princess and do as you’re told?”
“Yes, Father,” I said through my tears.
“There’s my good girl.” Another kiss, lingering on my forehead. His heart beat strongly next to my ear. “Did I frighten you before? I’m sorry. Let me make it right.”
He was all I knew of love or hate, his red clothes falling away from him, and the worst of it was that somewhere inside I still wanted to please him. Even my hate wasn’t pure, not once he got his hands on it.
Tell me a story, Father. Tell me about the princess who was bad and had to be punished, and about the princess who was good and had to be rewarded.
The same story, and no happy ending in either one.
The sea woke me that evening, whispering its song in my bones. Chilly night air dried the sweat on my skin and sent shivers over my shoulders. The tears were a lie that flattered my father; I lay dry-eyed and motionless, letting the hum and wail of magic drown out his even breathing beside me. Now that I’d started, I didn’t know how I would stop hearing it, but I had to. Otherwise he would take me back inland, and I would lose even the small illusion of freedom I’d made for myself here.
Don’t leave, breathed the sea-song over my shivering skin. You could peel off your skin and wring the blood from your veins, but you would still hear this call. Don’t run away from yourself.
I didn’t even know who myself was. Not truly—not alone, untrammeled by other needs. The princess who tried so hard to be good, who was good enough to love but not to leave alone. A sea-morgen’s daughter, wearing her mother’s face to console her abandoned father. Frightened, and hiding it badly; needing, and knowing better than to ask. I lay awake in the dark and tried to see whose heart beat so fretfully in my chest.
Far below me, the sea pounded against the granite wall. Let me in. I can help.
Only my eyes moved, rolling until I could see him sleeping next to me. The key to the causeway gate gleamed around his neck in the faint scar of moonlight.
My city, the only thing I’d ever asked for. All the artists and craftsmen and workers who’d come, trusting me enough to put their lives in the ocean’s hands, who’d closed their eyes and ears every time he came to visit. The home I’d tried to build. So much to weigh in the balance, against nearly thirty years of what he’d taught me to call love.
They knew. Those raised eyebrows and knowing glances when I asked them to teach me their skills; of course they knew. He had never made it a secret, either here or in his capital. And no one here had spoken a word to make it real and terrible. Not even the ones I’d taken such secret joy in protecting. No one in all my life had ever looked me in the eyes and said, I know, and I’m sorry.
The tide was low; that might give some of them a chance. It was as much as they had ever given me. It would even the tally. It took effort to remember that I existed; I had nothing left to spare for them.
The sea-song rippled through my bones, with the cool fullness of magic in its wake. I hummed a sleep charm under my breath, one I’d used on myself when I had a little extra magic left on my skin, and breathed out in silent relief when I felt the sharp sting of a spell working. It might not hold for long, but I wouldn’t need much time.
I rubbed my hands together to warm them before I reached for the key. The clasp had worked its way onto his shoulder in his sleep; I unhooked it and slid the key off the chain. It dropped silent and solid into my palm. I slid naked off the bed and padded out of the room. (My room, you father, you monster. Mine again now; mine forever.)
The guards knew I walked the seawall at night. They turned their eyes away from my nakedness. I clenched my fist on the key until my knuckles creaked. Cold seeped up from the stones into my feet, my legs, my spine. I was cold as the ocean, cold as the spray that stung my flesh, cold as a heart that had never been taught how to love. I traced my hand along the wall, sipping away the strength in the warding spells. The heat of the gathering magic hurt as it burned into my shivering body. I walked all around the wall, undoing the spells I had maintained, hearing the faint creak as the granite protested and shifted. Goodbye, I said as I drew off the spells’ strength. I’m sorry. Thank you. When my skin stretched tight with magic, I stopped at the watchtower and rang the bell, once to draw the guards’ attention and once more when I had it.
Then I went down through the city, toward the locked gate. I’d thought it was late, but the lanterns in the cleaner of my two rival taverns still threw golden light onto the cobblestones. Magic glimmered silver under my skin; in the torchlight it could almost pass for harmless moonlight on pale flesh. Blood slicked my hand, cut open by my fingernails as I gripped the key. I needed only a few steps to reach the causeway gate. I could hear the waves growling beyond it, straining to get in. The sea-song shrilled high and fierce in my head as I knelt to the lock that held the gate shut. Come home, Dahut. Come home.
I didn’t know what coming home would be like, but I wanted to find out. The key scraped in the lock, and the sea came pouring in.
The sea is not gentle. I should have remembered that. It knocked me onto my back as it ripped aside the gate. I hit my back on cobblestones and choked on a lungful of harsh salt water as the rush of the incoming waves dragged me backward, deeper into my city. A wall of water forced my hand open, scouring salt into the bleeding crescents on my palm and tearing away the key.
By the time I fought my way to the churning surface, people were already screaming. Loose cobbles streamed past me underwater, borne on the current; one slammed into my leg, and I felt the bone crack. You know me, I said. You’re hurting me. Stop. The ocean’s roar drowned me out.
Someone surfaced near me, water-darkened hair streaming: a woman, one of my favorite painters. I snatched for her hand, caught a handful of hair, pulled her toward me. I kicked out, knocking my numb feet against deep-carved stone. I hauled us up a set of stairs only half-underwater. She hung heavy, dragging down my arm. When I looked back, I saw she was already dead, bleeding sluggishly from a gash in her head. I let her go; the inrushing waves snatched her away.
The palace loomed at the top of the stairs. I stumbled up toward it on my bad leg, spitting out salt water. Had I guessed wrong? Had the sea sung to me only to drown me? But no: I felt magic surge inside me. I saw it ripple underneath my skin like the sea itself, spreading my toes to grip the stairs better, reshaping the broken bone of my leg. Fine webs already stretched between my fingers. It had not forgotten me. Absurdly, delightedly, I leaned against the crumbling stairs and laughed.
Waves kept rising behind me. This high up, I couldn’t hear my city dying. All the screams faded behind the howling waves and the steady rising hum of the sea-song calling my name. I staggered as the stairs groaned under my feet. Mortar scraped away at a touch; the beautiful blocks of granite shifted as the ocean battered against them. The sharp savage sweetness of the waters rushing in made me feel weightless, as if they already surrounded me.
“Dahut!” My father’s voice rang from a palace balcony above me, cutting through my wild laughter. I had never heard him sound afraid before. Salt stung my eyes as he pounded down the last few stairs to me and seized my arm. “Where’s my horse? We have to get out of here!”
“Drowned,” I said, and laughed again. Was that fear I saw flicker in his eyes? His hand tightened on my arm, but for once he stared in silence and let me speak. “They’re all drowned, or drowning. There’s no way back. The gates are flooded, the causeway’s underwater, and the spells that held the wall up...” I lifted my free hand, the one that had held the key, and showed him the places where my nail-scarred palm glowed silver with the magic I had eaten.
“Dahut, I told you no more magic.” But his voice shook, and fear licked like waves at the corners of his eyes, and oh—
I had never seen anything so sweet.
“And now,” I said, “I’m telling you. No.”
He had never before heard that word from my lips. Not once. It stopped him cold, his red tunic hanging unbelted from his shoulders and his mouth gaping like a beached fish. The sea-song was shaking me apart; I could feel my teeth rattling, my bones shifting, all of myself swelling into something beyond his worst fears.
“No,” I said again, for the sheer joy of saying it to him at last. And seized him by the loose flapping cloth of his devil-red tunic, and dragged us both over the wall into the devouring embrace of the sea.
Let me tell you a story, the only one that matters anymore. Once there was a city ruled by a princess and a princess ruled by her fears. They’re both dead now. I killed my city and myself, in the same night.
You allowed me that city, but I’ve chosen a different home. I built it myself, out of will and magic and anger. I left behind the shape and the place I had been told to love. Now, I swim over empty roofs, my gills fluttering in the currents. A crust of barnacles silences the bell that rang when you approached. I drink magic like lungs drink air, to keep my palms scarred with silver; my flukes shimmer in the clear blue darkness underwater. You would have found me hideous like this. It’s one reason I love this shape.
I keep you down here to see it. I take your polished skull between my webbed fingers and tip it to and fro, so that you miss nothing. Then I let you go. Your empty bone face clatters on the cobbles of my dead city, and I swim up and up, away, following the current wherever I please as the song of my home wraps warm and safe around me, close enough to feel and loose enough to shake free.