Though previous excuses had always been deployed before the last minute, Deania did not truly believe her childhood friend Seriola would join her until she surfaced from the sea to find Seriola standing punctually on the brief sand of the beach. Finally allowing her anticipation free, she lifted one hand high in greeting. Seriola returned the gesture, abbreviated. Hardly the enthusiasm Deania hoped for, but perhaps Seriola’s baby had kept her awake the night before.

“Perhaps” was a word that had carried a heavy load for Deania’s friend, these last two years. It might seem Seriola had been avoiding her, but perhaps picking up her life on her return from the human country had taken more effort than Seriola expected. Perhaps she’d been consumed with her courtship. Perhaps she was still exhausted from her pregnancy, from caring for her newborn. Perhaps.

But her friend was here now. Deania slicked back her hair in the open air and refastened the tight tail to hold it, as she withdrew her luminescence the remaining distance up the lines on her neck to each temple. She’d had it down to her fingertips, the better to pry up shellfish where choppy water disrupted cloud-gray light.

“You made it,” Deania said with a smile, meaning it as greeting. It came out flat instead, her doubts sneaking in. That was an excellent way to ensure her friend never wished to explore together again, so she hurried to embrace Seriola, not even pausing to fold away the webbing between her toes. Their paths met where the sand was too dry to squelch and too damp to squeak, and Seriola squeezed her tight.

“It’s good to see you,” Seriola said. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long to find time we can spend together.” The tightness of worry in Deania’s chest eased a little more.

When they stepped back, Deania attempted to set aside any comparison to her memories, but Seriola had always been the one who pleaded to stay a little longer in the water when they were children, swimming around and around with endless patience as she tried to decipher the intriguing marks the humans had left behind. Now she was so entirely dry. Wind found opportunities that dampness would have foiled; it rolled small wrinkles along the fabric of her leggings and tossed up strands of hair, which even now had not attained a sufficient length for a tail, once shorn as short as human men wore theirs. Seriola tugged at her breast band, fidgeted with it, though after nearly a year of nursing, Deania thought she should have had plenty of time to become used to it.

“I have the perfect place picked out for us to explore.” Deania swept her arm wide toward the cove to the west. “Makaira told me she found traces of the humans who used to live on the island, in the cave that way. Who knows what they might have left behind.”

“And by ‘explore,’ you mean ‘go treasure hunting’?” Seriola’s tone turned unexpectedly sharp as her expression flattened. “Deania, you invited me swimming.”

That hurt, unexpectedly, like a shard of shell buried in the sand and pointed straight up into the tender foot that descended on it. Deania dropped her arm, hugged it defensively across her belly. “You like human things.” Seriola had taught herself so much about them, in fact, that it had been a foregone conclusion she would be the one chosen to travel secretly through the human country to learn about the humans’ machines, their—what was it?—stream power. Deania had loved learning about humans from Seriola in turn.

She nodded to the pocket watcher Seriola wore at her hip opposite her knife the way Deania currently wore her gathering net. Water must have long since had its way with the workings, but it made a pretty charm. “As for ‘treasure hunting,’ you didn’t object to it when I got you that!”

That had been her last—and best—adventure with Seriola before she left. The memory shivered with its vividness even now: climbing up and over the ship’s rail while most of the humans were ashore, soft-walking through the small wooden rooms, stuffing all manner of human items into her bag. Fabric, soft and coarse; metal knives to eat or fight with; and that watcher, slipped from its place tucked away in a box. That had been their partnership: Seriola’s knowledge of when a ship would be mostly unattended and which wooden rooms humans kept their possessions in; Deania’s boldness to sneak aboard.

Seriola clutched at the watcher, as if to hide it in her hand. With an effort, she smoothed her tone, loosened her muscles. “I’m sorry, you’re right. You were very helpful in making sure I was outfitted properly.”

Deania appreciated the apology, but it was as heavy as everything else about this meeting. Where was their laughter? She knocked her shoulder lightly into her friend’s. “I’m sure you’d have fooled the humans even without the watcher and the—waistjacket and coat, or whatever those were called.” Not nursing at the time, Seriola had gone as a man, as that was who humans would tell about machines, apparently.

“Oh, I had my moments of panic.” Seriola’s exhalation was almost a laugh. Deania waited eagerly to hear about the humans, but that was all. No story followed, or even a bland summary.

But this wasn’t really the place for such a conversation, hovering between sea and shore, was it? “If you don’t want to go exploring, we could sit and watch the waves, maybe.” She turned to point up to where the dark gray stacked rock lines of the bluff met the light gray puff of the clouds and pushed her disappointment firmly beneath the surface. The cave would keep for when next they met; she didn’t want to explore it without Seriola.

Her suggestion earned her a true laugh from Seriola, if a chagrined one. “Deania, sitting and watching? Those two things don’t belong in the same sentence.”

Well. Deania had been willing to try, for her friend. “We can make an easy swim of it. Talk on the way,” she offered with chagrin of her own, and relaxed at Seriola’s nod. She unhooked her full net from the morning’s gathering and set the shellfish by the basket of communal sandals placed where soft sand became pointy rock, for those returning to the village to slip on a pair or those traveling the opposite way to drop one off. Whoever passed the right direction to carry the net to the village stores would read her pattern of knots and make sure it fetched up, when empty, on her doorstep. Then she led the way wading into the water.

Seriola frowned for a few moments without moving, directed rather more at Deania than the waves or the sky to suggest weather was the reason for her hesitation. Frustration swamped Deania’s patience. If her friend didn’t want to come, she should have refused the invitation, or accepted the alternate suggestion! Having offered that, Deania didn’t see what else good manners might require of her. Then, thank goodness, Seriola shook away her hesitation and followed Deania in, dunking down and popping up with hands slicking at her hair. Finally, no longer dry.

“This way!” Deania swam with her head bobbing in the air, the better to talk, as promised. That was safe enough to do even had they been farther from shore, nearer one of the human fleet’s favored fishing grounds. With dark brown hair they would look like seals to passing ships. Or enough like them for one fisherman’s tales of mermaids to be dismissed by any who heard them recounted.

The swim to the cave was easy enough, even staying at the surface to be rocked by the chop as they passed around the point from one protected semi-circling of water to another. Seriola wallowed a bit in her stroke, but no worse than any nursing mother, and Deania forbore to tease her about it. Once, she would not have hesitated with her friend, but not now with things so fragile beneath the hovering awkwardness.

“How have you been, Deania? Courting anyone?” Seriola smiled, question undoubtedly not as pointed as it felt. Others had remarked on Deania’s lack of progress toward a family of her own, lately growing definitely pointed.

“Tracking ships keeps me too busy to worry about courting.” Deania swallowed further justifications, knowing her friend did not need to be convinced. But she did so much more than track ships, watch for their arrival—she, Makaira, and others mapped the humans’ routes of travel, the shoals of fish the fisherman shadowed, the fishermen’s stopping spots and living spots. All of those came together in a picture that kept this village undiscovered and safe.

Besides, courting was considerably less interesting than human treasure.

“And none of the trackers are unattached?” Seriola laughed and summoned up a whole school of questions to dart and nibble at Deania. Certainly, that person or this one was handsome or swift or personable enough. But “I hadn’t thought about it” or “yes, I suppose” took so little time to say and left the air open for the next question, and the next. In desperation, Deania asked after Seriola’s baby. Seriola provided ample detail with barely more than listening noises to prompt her, and her questions of Deania stopped. Deania tried to be interested, and when the force she could bend to holding her attention to her friend’s words grew exhausted, she nodded along anyway, like flowing with the tide.

The tide in truth might have been better for this expedition later in the day, but the space between the ocean and the flat cave floor was not so far, nor unbearable on unsandaled feet even with gravel that was sharp-edged from where it had cracked off the roof rather than round from being turned up by water.

“According to Makaira, there’s fresh water hidden back in here,” Deania said, pointing. “It apparently gets deep enough to swim, a ways in. She didn’t go far, so it’s waiting for us to explore it properly.” She paused to concentrate and bring up her luminescence, just from temple to jaw. Here the rock was red-brown, glistening with tones of the redder hue in the white glow of her lum lines rather than the flat cloud-gray of the outside light. She put a hand to the carved flatness of the wall at the entrance to one tunnel. “Seems she was right that it’s human-made.”

“Well, it’s an arm of the mine,” Seriola said. She glanced down one tunnel, to the ceiling, and then back to Deania, waiting. Deania, in turn, waited for her to explain. Seriola hissed frustration with some particularly sharp stone as she finally joined Deania at the mouth of the tunnel. “An iron mine,” she said. “I believe the humans had trouble keeping it clear of water, so when a new vein was found on the mainland, they transferred their efforts there. And with so little land here worth farming for their kind of crops, they abandoned the rest of their town when the mine closed.”

Deania stepped into the pool, which deepened where the cave had been carved downward. The smell of the groundwater made her taste the dissolved minerals on her tongue in memory. Ripples surged outward from her ankles, then from her knees, no waves in this place but hers. An area of darkness caught her eye, and she diverged to trace a sharp-cut square in the wall, at about the height for her or a human’s use. On the shelf of the square, her fingertips found something soapy, slippery. It curled up under her nails when she changed her angle to scrape. Wax. “Do you think they put a candle here? They’d need light.” She pictured it, illuminating a room full of humans, and the thought sent a fizz of excitement through her. They must have left much more than wax behind. They always did.

“Don’t get too excited.” Seriola rippled over to Deania and flattened her palm to the shelf of the square, covering over the wax. “I doubt there will be much else to find. They didn’t live here, they worked here, and they’d have carried away all except the most broken of tools.”

“We’re here, we should at least look.” Deania’s excitement winked out under the tight grip she had to take on herself to remain polite. Was Seriola claiming there would be nothing only because she didn’t want to search? It wasn’t fair; she’d had a whole world of human treasure spread out before her, two years ago, and now she’d returned to her perfect partner and perfect baby and was denying Deania the hope of seeing even scraps.

Even as she had them, Deania recognized her thoughts’ childishness. Seriola would never mislead her.

“I’ve never been in a mine before. It should be interesting to see inside one, anyway,” Seriola offered, diffident.

“Exactly! This way.” Deania took a full diving breath and pushed up from the floor, flattening into a long glide through the tunnel. Seriola’s lum carried diffusely from behind her. Cross tunnels offered themselves at surprisingly quick intervals on either side, but Deania took the straight path, or at least the mostly straight one. She paused here and there, dipping to the floor or ceiling to examine, but the boredom of endless similarity settled in quickly. She switched her attention to making distance, to reaching the next patch of air.

Only they were increasing in depth, if somewhat subtly, she realized. That would not take them to air. She turned at the next side tunnel, avoiding down even if she couldn’t quite find up. Seriola caught up to her, progress arrested in the tunnel by a hand grounded against the wall while she signed with her other, near her neck to catch the most lum. Maybe we should turn back.

It’s fine, Deania signed back, and stroked well ahead with a powerful kick. She had no idea where she was going, but to turn back was untenable. To turn back was defeat, with Seriola vanishing back into the routine of family and baby, never again to provide Deania with company or advice. Never again to gasp in shock as Deania hoisted herself up over a ship’s rail then laugh with relief when she splashed back down, arms full, undetected.

But Deania’s chest was starting to ache to a familiar degree that told her she had a few minutes to find air, no more.

Dithering only lengthened the distance from their entrance. Wildly, Deania turned, turned again. How were there so many different tunnels? All nearly straight, all with yet more tunnels opening from them. She was lost now, her chest a knot of panic that shivered with each heartbeat, and Seriola was lagging. Of course, she hadn’t had practice with her diving breaths, with so much time dry, and Deania could see her friend’s own panic in the awkward laboring of her kicks.

No! Deania rolled to her back, caught Seriola’s outstretched hands, and kicked with all her strength, kicked for them both. The floor now angled up, and she chose any tunnel that seemed to take them with it; air would be up, somewhere. It had to be. If the humans had had difficulties in keeping the water out of the mine, it must have once been completely full of air.

There! Deania wasn’t sure what spoke to her of the air above the water, some lightening of pressure or shimmer of her waves rippling across an open surface instead of into the unyielding rock of a ceiling, but she closed her eyes and kicked and dragged her friend and didn’t think of breathing, how she felt like she was dying without air, and then they burst up. Flat air, as tinged by minerals as the groundwater they floated in but no less sweet for it. Seriola curled up but couldn’t stop her choking coughs, gasping in even as water still lapped over her mouth. Deania turned her over, combining their buoyancy by resting the back of her friend’s head against her shoulder. All right. They were all right.

And they were all right, for a few moments, recovering, then Seriola jerked violently out of her grasp. “Deania, you could have killed us.”

“I’m sorry.” Deania spoke so emphatically that she found herself signing the same thing with her hands just below the water, like a toddler. She closed her hands, embarrassed, and hoped Seriola hadn’t noticed the ripples. Or maybe it would be better if she had, to convince her of Deania’s sincerity.

Seriola slicked back her hair, as if to remind herself how to smooth control back into her panting lungs, then hugged herself to damp the shuddering. That didn’t last long before she was fidgeting with her breast band once more, now no doubt uncomfortable with the need to nurse soon. With that and more, she must be longing to get back to her baby. “And how are we going to get back? I don’t think I could do that again so soon, even if you remembered all the turns, which I’m sure you don’t. What’s wrong with you?”

Wrong. Deania’s fingers fell into the sign echoing the word. She couldn’t pretend she didn’t know what her friend meant. “We’ll have to try and find a different way out—”

“You’re reckless, that’s your problem! You always have been, but what’s endearing in a child is dangerous in an adult. Maybe if I’d tried to stop your recklessness back when you crept onto that ship—or at least warned the elders afterwards!” Seriola spat. “If we get out of here, maybe I should remedy that.”

The betrayal cracked through Deania’s entire body, like melting sea ice giving way beneath her. She couldn’t believe—how dare Seriola use their secret, their shared secret of their greatest adventure, against her?

She shoved into Seriola’s face fast enough to throw an arc of waves that reflected with smacking sounds against the walls where they didn’t slap against Seriola herself. “You enjoyed that just as much as me! When you decide a particular aspect of the past doesn’t suit your present dignity, that doesn’t mean those events can be forgotten like they never happened.” The next words stuck like a broken shell in her throat. “Friendships can’t be forgotten that way either.”

Seriola dropped her hands and lifted her chin, standing unyielding before Deania’s waves. “As children, we thought human cities were stuffed full of treasure, remember? Well, now I know they’re full of filth and stink and violence and I’ve had enough of them for a lifetime. Some of us grow beyond what we believed as children. Some of us grow up.” She was not so unmoved as she seemed, however. Deania spotted Seriola’s fingers curling into the sign for children under the water.

Deania couldn’t continue to look at Seriola, the hypocrisy of her, but there was nothing else for her to focus on in this place besides featureless rock walls, tinted red. “And I haven’t? I’m out with the other ship trackers, swimming dawn to dusk to ensure you and your partner and your baby are safe. Making sure the village stays undiscovered so certain people can get nothing more than their feet wet to pick up a few mussels!”

That wasn’t strictly fair to Seriola, but Seriola hadn’t been strictly fair to her, and the only way Deania saw to win this fight was to steal the last word, so she kicked away. One movement couldn’t take her out of the range of her friend’s—her former friend’s—voice, but ducking under the surface could. She glided long, picking any direction as long as it was away. No wonder Seriola had begged off from all her invitations. Reckless. Deania wasn’t reckless, Seriola was a coward!

As she came up for air, she heard Seriola’s desperate voice. “Deania, don’t get lost!”

Deania kicked up to lift her chin from the water. “I’m looking for a way out.” She hugged the nearest wall, circled it.

Circled it indeed. Understanding snapped into place. These weren’t tunnels, they were the spaces between great, round pillars, large enough to need perhaps ten people, holding hands, to make a full circle around them. Pillars to hold up the ceiling, in row upon row, with the straightness that humans preferred.

One had symbols painted upon it, original white glazed over with dripped deposits but definitely there. Deania supposed Seriola would be able to read them. With a slow kick, conserving energy, Deania considered the symbols from one direction, then the other. She wouldn’t develop the ability to read them for staring at them harder. And yet, she couldn’t bear to ask Seriola to do so, after what she’d said. Deania found the adventure, Seriola’s knowledge channeled it; wasn’t that exactly what Seriola had just rejected?

Within the lum-swallowing darkness and oppressive, soft water sounds of a place without wind to create branch-shiver or wave-crash, Deania’s thoughts had nothing to do but chew over her anger at Seriola. Why had she even come, if she now hated treasure-hunting and adventure so much?

And there it was below all the anger, like a single shell revealed when the waves washed away a child’s edifice built of sand. Deania had her own part in this. Seriola had come because Deania had dragged at her, invitation after invitation. Perhaps she’d even come for the sake of those same memories Deania had accused her of trying to erase.

It was no great distance to swim back to where Seriola was now running a hand along the wall, folded in on herself with worry. Deania hesitated, floating, for a few heartbeats longer, then set her feet to the floor and stood partly in the air. “Seriola, I—”

She didn’t have the right words for what she wanted to say, she realized, which was odd. She would have had those words for a lover. She supposed she’d never thought before of friendships as something that had an end, sometimes desperately needed to have an end.

Deania supposed she’d been wrong enough so far, she might as well use the wrong words as well. “I think what I need to say is that it hurts, to lose you as a friend, but much less than it hurts right now, to try to drag you back. Look at us.”

Yes, Seriola signed, not hidden under the water but right there in the air, near her heart. “We’ve both changed. I realized I was assuming it was just me, and you were stuck exactly the way you were when I left. But you’ve changed in your own direction, a good direction, harnessing your curiosity and risk-taking to a purpose that does keep everyone safe. But that’s why we’re so very far apart now—neither of us has been standing still.”

“And we’re both trying so hard.” At least Deania was. She saw in Seriola’s watery smile that the words captured what she felt as well. It hurt too much to laugh at the irony, so instead that smile. “In there”—Deania gestured to the next pillared room—“I realized you’re hurting me, I’m hurting you...”

Here were the words she’d been searching for.

“Wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to hurt each other anymore? I wish we could still find adventures together, but if that’s not right for you, I’d rather not poison the memories of those we did have.” No one else knew as much about humans as Seriola, but Makaira would love the pure physical challenge of places like this, swimming long and hard until a path could be found. Deania would hardly have to hunt her treasure alone in the future, just more slowly without a guide.

No, more enlivened by the excitement of discovery without a guide.

“I’d never have told anyone, about the ship.” Seriola dropped her hands to her sides. “Everyone made so much of my bravery, going into the human lands. But all that knowledge I gathered, the right clothes, those were armor. I didn’t need to be nearly so brave, hiding behind them, as you were that evening, hoisting yourself over the rail. You didn’t have any armor at all except speed and silence and you were smiling. I don’t think I’ll ever understand how to be brave like that.”

Deania wasn’t sure if the line between brave and reckless fell quite where Seriola had placed it this time, any more than it fell where she’d placed it in the heat of accusations about getting the two of them lost. What drew Deania to hunt treasure and slip onto ships was the quite-selfish shivery pleasure she found in it, like diving from a great height. But this was the calm water that was needed between them, and now it was time to leave this place. “I could truly use your human knowledge one more time.” She stroked away slowly, head up, and Seriola followed without hesitation.

When they arrived at the particular pillar she extended her lum all the way down the lines to her shoulder, swam near the symbols to strengthen the utility of the diffuse glow as much as she could. “What do these say?”

“Nineteen.” After speaking, Seriola came to trace the symbol but had no apparent hesitation in her translation. Deania thought perhaps she was bemused at finding it in such a place.

It took a lot of swimming, around and around pillars, lum down to her fingertips now and dragging at Deania’s energy, for them to find eighteen, upward along the angled depth of the floor. From there, seventeen was easier, and by sixteen the water was only up to their ankles. “This path seems wider than most of the others. I think we’re going the right way.” Deania spotted another square alcove for a candle and rested there for a moment, to hide that her head was swooping. She should cut back on her lum, but what if they missed a number and went astray? She’d be all right.

By the time they ascended wood stairs, shoved open a rotting wood door to wind and such bright grayness, Deania was leaning on Seriola’s shoulder, a reversal of how she’d pulled them through to air. They stared around at the rock breaking through the scrubby grass between the trampled dirt of the humans’ abandoned paths. “We must be at the center of the island,” Seriola said.

“With all the distance we swam and walked, we must have been under the ocean.” Deania pointed back the way they’d come, to the shore dimly visible, trying to overlay it on her memories of swimming below. Groundwater, below rock, below the ocean. Huh. Interesting.

Seriola adjusted Deania’s arm more securely over her shoulder now that their skin was drying properly in the chill wind. They were built for even colder water, but it did tend to bite at the tips of fingers, and Deania curled hers in as much as she could. “Later, if you want treasure, it’ll be in the remains of their houses, you know.” A tip of Seriola’s chin served to indicate a listing building farther along the path, all color stripped from it by relentless weather.

“They’re all empty.” Deania had verified that for herself the moment she was old enough to explore on her own.

“You have to look in their middens.” Seriola detoured their steps to pull a short stick from some sort of wall falling down around the first house. With the stick, she scratched at a mound that was more dirt than stone, in contrast to the hummocks around it. Suddenly there was shine among the dull dirt. The white of pottery, the brown of glass.

Seriola bent away from Deania and plucked up the pottery, brushed away sandy clods until it could catch the light on its paint, then straightened and offered over the finger-length shell-like shape. Deania accepted the pottery delicately. It was hollow, slightly curved, open at one end and partially covered at the other, smooth and carefully formed and simply amazing.

“It’s a teapot spout,” Seriola offered. Deania was not entirely sure what that meant, but she held the words close to puzzle out later.

It was of just the right size—she lowered her hand with it to her hip, where Seriola wore her watcher. If she tied a custom net, so the rounded length wouldn’t slide through a single knot, it would look very nice. “Thank you.”

Seriola must have noticed her glance at the watcher, realized the bond her gift had forged. A bond of remembered, rather than continuing, friendship. She huffed, a noise that to Deania held something of regret, something of relief. “You’re welcome.” She squeezed her fingers over Deania’s shoulder and got them moving again, back to the path and toward the village.

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R.Z. Held writes speculative fiction, much of it in the apparently disparate subgenres of space opera and weird western. Her Silver series of urban fantasy novels was published under the name Rhiannon Held. She lives in Seattle, where she works as an archaeologist for an environmental compliance firm. At work, she uses her degree mostly for copy-editing technical reports; in writing, she uses it for cultural world-building; in public, she'll probably use it to check the mold seams on the wine bottle at dinner.

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