Bit was five when Master Kal bought him. She picked him because he didn’t squirm or cry when they put him in the water, in the trough she set out to see if any of the children were worth taking as her apprentice.

She took him with her up the high mountain to the drowning place, the still black lake that his grandfather called the Dead God’s Tear, where the diviners drowned for answers. Kal was the best of them. She lived in a high house, up a tall stone stair from the little village where the other diviners and the acolytes, interpreters, pardoners, and tinkers lived beside the black water. From his first week in her house, Bit served the nobles and priests and wealthy merchants wine and cakes in the velvet-hung anteroom that smelled of cedar and incense. Kal met them in her gold-embroidered trousers and greeted each one just the same.

“What secrets would you have me bring out of the dark?”

Some of them laughed and were familiar, and some were frightened or uncomfortable and stammered their questions in half-whispers. All of them called her ‘master’. When Bit asked why it wasn’t Mistress Kal, she told him some people thought the drowning was only a thing for men, and it was easier for them to pay her if they could pretend she was a man. It seemed like nonsense to Bit, since everyone agreed she was the best of the diviners.

At seven years, Bit could go five minutes into the drowning. He tucked his body sinking under the black water away into the corner of his mind and went to the other place, where there was no light and he was floating without water. Weeds like ropes caressed him. They were cold and slick with slime. They were underwater things, but he was not. In the drowning, he moved by falling, feeling what direction he needed to go and letting himself tumble that way through the weeds to land on the uneven ground. The answers swarmed around his ankles in the dark, running like rats, warm like fur and soft like mud under his hands. Sometimes the right one flashed like blue light, but it illuminated nothing. Maybe there was nothing there to see, not no light but nothing for the light to show. Bit learned from Kal how to feel the right answer, crackling correctness against his palm like the little lightnings her cat sometimes sparked with on a winter day.

Kal took him down every day, when she wasn’t working. Only once or twice at first, but then more, until he learned to spend half the day in the drowning, until he learned how to remember his body just enough to pull himself up before his breath ran out, dragging whatever answer he had caught into the mud with him. Kal pulled him cold and sputtering from the water more times than he could count, until he remembered his body enough to stop himself. It was hard for him, she told him, because he wasn’t afraid, not at all. Most diviners were held back for fear of drowning, but he was so brave his trouble lay in the other direction, staying too long instead of surfacing too soon.

She was right that he was never afraid. Why should he be? The dark place held him close, like his mother and father had before Kal bought him. The ropes of weed were his playmates, taking the parts of dragons, pirates, goblins, or robbers as the game demanded, batting at him just enough to make it fun. It was easy to forget the little shell of him sinking limp into the mud. Other diviners used harnesses, with clockwork or assistants to pull them out when they’d been down too long, but Kal never did, and never let him do it either. Anything holding him and he would stay half out of the drowning, not down deep where the truth lived. No harness was what made Kal the best, and her apprentice would not be worse.

At ten, Bit caught a true answer for himself, without any help from Kal. She only watched to make sure he was safe. It took him a whole morning’s drowning to answer Kal’s question: where was the key to the coldroom hidden? But the smile on her face when he ran back to her on the shore, carrying orange cake and new cream, chased the chill from his bones with warm pride. She let him free for the afternoon, so his knightly deeds took him down into the village instead of the lake. There were no other children there. All the other diviners took apprentices at fifteen or more, but Kal said those would never be great. They already feared the drowning too much.

He only played with imaginary friends today, but some of the stallholders, Ugin or Morhen or Black Willas, would give him a treat if he wandered by. None of Kal’s regular customers were there to really lavish him with attention. That was fine. Sometimes he felt like a little dog being cooed over when they treated him as more than a silent servant. There were a few noble ladies who pinched his cheeks and called him darling when they came to ask Kal for advice in love or money.

After that first success, Bit improved fast. Only a half a year later, Kal would sometimes just watch him, on simple questions, and let him bring the answer up. He always got the right one, even though she had said he’d make mistakes for a long time; that even the other diviners, men who’d been drowning twenty years, still made mistakes. Not Bit. Each time Kal let him find his way, he caught the truth before it squirmed out of his hands.

In his twelfth winter, his seventh with Master Kal, she sent Bit to drown alone for the first time. Once or twice she waited on the shore while he went down, but after that, she stayed in the high house and sent him down alone. He filled the empty space of her gone attention with more games, pursuing outlaws through dark woods or stalking careful up to a dragon’s lair, as he fell through the grasping weeds of the dark place.

Two weeks after he first drowned alone, Bit caught an answer. He was drowning aimless, half-framing a question to no purpose, just training himself, as Kal had bidden him. He twisted through the caressing weeds while his body hung just below the black water’s surface. He was a whaler, boat broken, still pursuing the great fish through the sea; the weeds were friendly seals, bearing him up and guiding him on.

He’d never quite been able to explain their friendliness to Kal. She always talked about finding the answer like it was fight or a test, not a game. When his ordinary body started sinking down, he let himself fall, aimless, until his feet hit the uneven ground and down was real again. He bent to grab a bit of nonsense and float back up, but light bright as a thunderbolt burst white across his blind eyes. He ran across to where the answer buzzed, cracking his shins on unseen rocks. His body in the water was sinking deep now. He didn’t grope for it, the answer sparked so clear. He caught and kicked back into himself up to the surface before he took a breath of black water. The answer whispered like a dark secret.

“The Bishop’s daughter is hiding in the Red Cockerel’s attic.”

What did that mean? It sounded like nonsense, but it was as true and cold and enticing as Kal’s big belt knife, the one he still wasn’t allowed to touch when he helped in the kitchen. He dried off quickly at the lakeside and pulled his shirt and trousers back on, ran up the steps to wrap himself in a blanket and bake by the fireside. It was cold out of the water on a winter morning. Master Kal was stitching a shawl for herself, embroidering a purple spiderweb on the black cloth.

“I caught a strange answer today, Master. It was true, and it called me, but I didn’t ask the question for it.”

“What did you ask?”

“What I’d eat next, maybe. I was only practicing.” He wasn’t afraid to tell how he’d been slack, because she was using her curious voice, not the stern one.

“What did the answer say?”

“It said ‘The Bishop’s daughter is hiding in the Red Cockerel’s attic.’”

“Just that?”

“Just that.”

Kal looked at him without moving her face, until he dropped his eyes. She didn’t stop looking right away. Then she told him to stay in the house and clean it once he was warm, and she went down, in her drowning clothes and not her market dress.

Kal looked at him a lot that evening, after she spent the whole of the light drowning, and she kept him out of the water. It felt strange being away from the drowning without work to do or an errand in the town. He itched deeper down than he could scratch. Confined to the house, he was a wizard trapped by his enemies in his own tomb, when a procession of bells and censers climbed the stair to call on Master Kal. Bishop Ringild was a fat man in purple damask and ermine with a face chapped red in the cold. Kal shooed Bit out for their conversation and went quickly down to drown, alone. She came back too fast. Even when it was easy to find the answer, she always let important clients wait for hours, to emphasize how important she was to them. This time, she came back up before they had even finished their cakes. She shooed Bit out again, but he listened at the door. She told the bishop his daughter was hiding in the Red Cockerel’s attic. She hadn’t caught that answer. He had, so it wasn’t in the dark place in the lake anymore. The same answer couldn’t be caught twice.

Kal didn’t say anything to him after the bishop left, just told him to get on with his chores. She went back the lake with him to drown after that, watching him from the shore in her furs while he practiced alone. For a week, she told him to drown without asking questions, the way he had when he found the bishop’s answer. It was hard to keep from thinking of something he wanted to know. Her telling him not to think made him start thinking of questions; that was what the drowning was for, answering questions.

He didn’t find any more answers like the one that had upset Kal, and she got tired of watching him drown and bring nothing back and made him answer questions she set him, strange ones he didn’t understand, about far countries and people he had never heard of, and the future. Those were hard. Sometimes six or ten answers all seemed right, and he had to feel each one before he knew which was best. He sank deep while he was doing that, and it felt like hot hands were squeezing his chest tight before he found the air again. He always found the right one, though. Kal would have told him if it was wrong. She always told him when he did anything wrong. She didn’t say anything when he got it right, just looked at him in the new quiet way she had since he found the bishop’s answer before the question.

For two weeks, Bit did nothing but drown and Kal did nothing but watch him. With so much practice, his lungs grew large and he drowned for longer and longer, lingering with the weeds and only catching an answer at the borders of his breath. The weeds comforted him when he grew frustrated with Kal’s silent sullen judgment, laying their leaves across his shoulders like soft hands and clasping tight enough to show they thought of him. They were his best companions through Kal’s silence, and things were getting better. Kal was more normal, without the new stiffness when she looked at him.

Those days of endless drowning ended when Lord Westin rode into the village beside the black lake and asked for both of them. Westin was interested in Bit. Westin had been a youth with his mother the first time Bit saw him, and while she and Kal talked in private he’d asked Bit endless questions about Kal, about the lake and the drowning. Poor little Bit hadn’t known anything then, but he’d learned fast, and the Westins returned often, with questions for the lake. Once Bit was seven, Lord Westin came alone.

His servant brought the message to the lakeside, and they hurried up to the house. Bit shivered in the cold. No one had ever asked for him like this before. Kal dressed him in a suit of red and black that bound tight across his back and made him stand very straight. She wore her gold-stitched trousers and her purple and black shawl, and they met Lord Westin in the anteroom, bowing low as they came in. Kal gave him the ritual greeting.

“What secrets would you have me bring out of the dark?”

“Good day, Master, and little Bit as well. I hear he’s drowning for true now, is that right?”

“He is training in the lake alone, milord. A new step in his learning to see truly,” said Kal. Bit was never to speak in the formal audiences unless he was asked something directly.

“Excellent.” Lord Westin smiled and shook his head so that his golden hair fell loose around his face. “Then I will have both of you drown for the answer to my question. It will be interesting to see what youth and experience bring me out of the lake.”

“My Lord, I’m afraid it’s too soon for that, and besides, the drowning is dark and dangerous, not a place for petty competition.”

“What a pity. I suppose I’ll have to see what the other diviners think. I really was set on the idea of seeing a master and apprentice drown at once. It would be so sad for everyone to hear that the greatest of diviners was embarrassed to dive next to her own student. I fear it would quite disillusion your colleagues, to have to speculate whether it was a failure at diving or at teaching you were so concerned might shame you.”

Bit could hear Kal’s teeth grinding. “Forgive me, lord. I am sure we can arrange something that will suit your needs. It may take more resources than usual.”

“Perfect. I will provide all that is needed, of course.”

Kal argued with him for a while over costs, but Bit had listened to enough of Kal’s negotiations to know she’d lost the important fight when she agreed they would both drown. Westin didn’t care about the money.

Bit wished Kal had put him off. One of them was going to be angry with him this way, he was sure of it.

There was a crowd waiting on the shore when they went down: Westin’s hangers-on and idlers from the village. Westin had insisted they come to watch. He shouted his question so everyone would hear.

“Where will I find my lady love? I would be wed before the year is out.”

Bit walked into the water beside Kal, just like they had more times than he could count. She turned and fell backward when the water was at her knees, putting on a show. He dove in the ordinary way.

It wasn’t like any drowning before. Kal fell away fast, leaving him alone. Before, she’d always had him take the lead, to show what he could do, but this time she was being judged, and she was the best diviner. She wouldn’t want anyone to think he was better. He wasn’t yet; he couldn’t be.

Bit floated, and the weeds caressed him. He waited, feeling for the answer’s pull. The weeds seemed to herd him. He fell. He heard Kal groping over rocks, but the weeds guided him past that landing, and he fell on another, smooth as a bowl, the answer buzzing like a stirred wasp’s nest at the bottom. He caught it and kicked up and back and climbed toward the light. Kal swam back to herself a moment after him and kicked up faster, and she surfaced first.

Lord Westin met them alone at the water’s edge. Kal had insisted on that.

“Well, what do you say, Master? Where does my love hide away?”

Kal put on the pompous voice she used for customers. “In the crumbling house of Fellridge you can find her, Lord.”

“Hmm. A worthy answer, Master. I thought their daughter had a winsome look. And you, Bit, did you find the truth as well?”

Bit wanted to stay silent. Both of them would be angry with what the drowning had told him, but they would only make him say if he refused, and his answer had felt right; it had felt as true as anything. It didn’t make Kal’s wrong, not exactly.

“I found the truth, I think. You will not find a lady love at all, until you make room in your heart. You love yourself too much to find another. That is what the drowning told me.”

Kal clamped her hand over his mouth. He felt her arm trembling. Her face was pale.

“Forgive the boy, Lord. He was eager to please you, but once the truth is found, no other diviner can bring it up again. I’m sure he would have found the truth for you if I had not plucked it first.”

Lord Westin looked like he was thinking, but Kal bundled Bit away, past the crowd and up the stairs to the stone house. She pushed him through the door.

“You shouldn’t have been able to find that answer, Bit.”

Kal never knelt down to speak to him the way other grown-ups did, but she was leaning over him the way she only did when she was worried, when he was sick or shivering from too long out in the cold.

“What do you mean? It was true, wasn’t it? I felt it true.”

“You probably did, but it wasn’t really an answer to Westin’s question. Did you hold the question clear while you were falling, like I taught you?”

“Of course.”

“You should have fallen where I did. That was where the answers for that question were.”

“I did, to start, but the weeds showed me somewhere else, and that’s where I found my answer.”

“The weeds helped you? The drowning moved for you?”

“Of course. They’re my friends.” Why did she look pale? She was squeezing his shoulder too tight.

“Stay in the house, Bit, until I tell you different. Something is not right, and you can’t drown until I know what it is.”

That was that. Bit was confined again. He felt hot and dried out by the fire in the stone house. He watched Lord Westin’s troupe and all their banners going down the mountain three days later. Kal was almost always gone, drowning herself over and over, and when she was at home she was strange, distracted. She wouldn’t say anything more about what she was drowning for. She said she didn’t want to make Bit afraid, and she stared at him like he was a puzzle she was trying to decipher. He tried not to be afraid of that.

Bit waited, and he dreamed of the friendly weeds tapping on his shutters at night, calling him back where he belonged. He missed the drowning cool water, and the weeds wrapping him, and doing something he was good at. Imagining he was a wizard lost its shine quickly. He didn’t understand why Kal didn’t want him anymore, why she kept him penned up in the house.

Clients came, twice, asking for Kal to drown for them. She sent them away without answers. She had never done that, never. Something was really wrong, and Kal wouldn’t tell him what to do. He had to find out himself. The drowning could tell him why she had gone strange, and how to fix it. How to make everything alright again.

Three weeks after she shut him in the house, Bit slipped out. The moon was full, and he padded quietly down the silvered stairs to the black water. He held his question as he sank beneath the smooth black water.

“Why is Kal so strange now?”

The weeds reached out and patted him like eager hounds as soon as he was in the drowning. He almost heard them asking where he’d been. The water cooled the burning itch under his skin and he felt the dark place fold him into itself. He fell fast and easy, and the answer almost leapt into his hands.

“She is afraid of how well you drown.”

His breath was still bubbling where his body was. Time left to try another question. Would the drowning answer two questions without him leaving in between? He asked aloud, making sure it was only in the dark place, not opening his lips under the water.

“Why is she afraid of that? She wanted me to be the best.”

He fell again, and again the answer was ready under his hand when he landed.

“She is afraid of how we are your friends, because she never felt it.”

He kicked himself back to himself and broke the surface, breathing a sharp gulp of cold. Lamps were burning in the high house. In Kal’s room, and in his. She knew he was gone. He drowned again.

“What will she do?”

The weeds were eager, shooing him just where he needed. He fell fast and rolled among the soft and swarming truths. He came up with the answer clutched to him.

“She will take you back inside, and never let you into the drowning again.”

Never again. No. He couldn’t lose his friends. Not now that Kal wasn’t even his friend anymore.

“How can I stop her?”

It flashed just a step farther, and he caught it before the afterimage of blank nothings faded from his eyes.

“You must kill her.”

Tonight the drowning was personal, speaking to him, not just dispensing secrets he half-understood.

“Isn’t there another way? How can I make her love me again?”

Two questions at once, but the answers ran to him like they were tame.

“Only by lying and making her believe it. She will never love you again while she knows you are our friend.”

He could never do it. Bit had tried lying to Kal twice, in seven years, and each time she had put ten stripes on him with a hazel switch. Years of drowning had taught her to hear the truth, and lies were forbidden in her house.

The answer to his third question was waiting as he fell. He was deep now, almost to the bottom of the lake.

“How can I kill her?” She was so much taller, so much stronger than him.

“Take the knife from her belt when she embraces you. Put it into her belly and let her fall into the lake.”

He fought back to the surface, gasping and coughing out water, and there she was, waiting on the shore, with her arms open.

“Bit, come out of the water. It’s not safe. The drowning wants something from you, and I don’t understand what it is yet.”

She pulled him to her breast and cooed over him, as if he needed comfort. She was tense as a wire under the tenderness. He looked up at her eyes in the moonlight; she was looking past him, at the water, and she was afraid. She was afraid of the drowning, the worst thing she had always taught him not to be. She couldn’t teach him anything more, not while she was afraid of the water and the dark place and the weeds that held him softer than she did.

He felt at her belt and found the knife where she always kept it. He pulled it out, heavy and sharp and bright under the moon. She stepped away, but only a little. Not too far. He pushed it in, and it slid easy. Once. Twice, and she fell into the water, and slid under it, as if the weeds, his friends, had reached out of the drowning to pull her down. He ran back to the high house, and after a long time lying, he fell asleep in front of the banked fire.

In the morning, there was a loud knock at the door, and someone called for Master Kal, the diviner.

He dressed in his suit of black and red and met them in the anteroom that smelled of cedar and incense, and when they came in, a rich merchant and her six attendants, he greeted them.

“What secrets would you have me bring out of the dark?”

Everything would be alright. He could drown better than anyone alive. He would answer every question and never be away from his friends again.

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R. K. Duncan is an author mostly of fantasy, with a dash of science-fiction and horror thrown in. He writes about fairies and gods and ghosts from a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford college. Links to other work and information about his drive to attend Viable Paradise 23 can be found at rkduncan-author.com.

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