All the Queen Mother wanted Velia and her siren-sisters to steal this time was a single item: a silver serving dish embossed with a pattern of roses. It was a simple thing on the face of it, but it was a job that would change Velia’s life and possibly the course of history for one merkingdom.
“It used to belong to us,” the Queen Mother had said as Velia swam beside her, in a voice that could have clipped pomfret fins faster than a well-whetted knife. The Queen Mother was perambulating across the grand ballroom of her underwater palace, her familiars and her attendants trailing after her in a train as she dispensed orders left and right. Velia and her siren-sisters were part of that train. “We’d like to display it at the Royal Banquet we are throwing for our daughter the Queen and her consorts next month. It would also be an appropriate way to tie up some loose ends, as with the other similar acquisitions you have made at our behest. We’d also like to use it for our breakfasts. It would be so lovely to serve smoked salmon sandwiches on it.”
Velia had often been amused by the Queen Mother’s rather disreputable predilection for human food from Terra Cognita. Mer-purists deeply disapproved of the propensity for human food amongst more sophisticated merfolk—they who fed only on sonar and the music of the currents and wrote entire treatises about the ways in which human food polluted mer-ontologies. The Queen Mother often laughed at these detractors—she had travelled widely through the Fourfold Realms in her youth and had a lasting fondness for the cuisine of Terra Cognita.
“How is it that the serving dish is in the Arch-Wizard Rasheel’s home?” Velia’s younger sister, nimble-fingered Virhamma, had asked, her dark brown braids jangling discordantly as she moved owing to the shells and beads her sisters had lovingly attached. The shells were pinkish and iridescent violet and peacock green when they shimmered against the smooth walnut brown of her skin.
“We have past history,” said the Queen Mother, her tone clinical and cold enough that Velia shivered. “He has what he should never have possessed.”
“Are we then stealing from a thief?” asked Rovalesa, the third of the siren-sisters in the Queen Mother’s employ, her entire mien sceptical while still respectful. Of the three siren-sisters, Rovalesa was the one who liked the Queen Mother the least, and had been very vocal about it to Velia and Virhamma. Even now Velia observed that her sister was judging the Queen Mother’s latest caprice with her deep-set hawkish eyes and her aquiline features. Rovalesa possibly disliked the Queen Mother even more than she did. For reasons Velia did not know, this was precisely the reason why the Queen Mother gave Rovalesa more tasks to perform, and required her counsel on all things. Besides, who could remain surprised at the Queen Mother’s caprice after all of these years of employment?
“He is not quite a thief,” said the Queen Mother, strangely reticent. “Once, we were on very good terms.”
The three sisters threw significant and speculative glances at each other. As the Queen Mother spoke, she paced up and down her Attending Room with elegant swoops of her brilliant tail that dragged at the currents and with swirls of her still-agile body. The siren sisters tried to keep up, as did the school of bluehead wrasse that followed her obediently. The colourful striped fish shied away from the three sirens but were utterly devoted to the Queen Mother, as were most of the marine inhabitants of Alta Exsilii. She had been a good Queen, and one who had done much to ensure both harmony and prosperity in their waters, but she was a rather difficult Queen Mother these days.
The Queen Mother continued, “He is not entirely disreputable, or we would not have dealings with him. The Arch-Wizard is very important to the safety of our kingdom. Very important indeed.”
“So why then would we risk his wrath by claiming this serving dish, your Majesty?” asked Velia reasonably. “Surely we can get far grander serving dishes for you.”
“Because it should be ours. We want it,” said the Queen Mother, her eyes glinting with an edge of—Velia had not been sure if it was possession, or a deep grudge.
Later, the siren sisters speculated if the Queen Mother was finally becoming senile, even though she had yet to reach five hundred years of life. They had never known her to be like this before. Velia was reaching the limits of her patience. They had been in servitude far too long. Velia yearned for a freedom, for a life beyond these thefts and acts of espionage for a capricious employer who would accord them no respite. One day, she thought. One day, the Queen Mother would go too far, or some other opportunity would be far too tempting for Velia to refuse.
The night of their heist arrived. Light-fingered and adept, Velia was assigned to pluck the serving dish from the Arch-Wizard’s parlour, set just beyond the elegantly pillared antechamber in his snug mansion. At the appointed time, Velia watched through her telescope as Rovalesa and Virhamma approached the Arch-Wizard’s garden, which seemed to grow out of the ocean bed in a star shaped construction of ridges and grooves made out of coral and sea vegetation, fortified here and there with hardy timber from shipwrecks. They were there to distract the Arch-Wizard with an official letter from the Queen (actually falsified by the restive Queen Mother). Velia watched impatiently as her sisters took their own sweet time before blowing the conch-bugle left on a slim pedestal for visitors to announce their arrival. First, they swam back and forth through his luminous and irradiating garden of sea anemones, touching artefacts and sculptures the Arch-Wizard had placed there. Then, they were engrossed in a discussion. Velia was fairly sure it involved the value of the artefacts and whether they were easily transportable. Her sisters at least, had not tired of this life of burglary. Velia, if she were honest, had been tired of it before it had even begun.
Finally, as the bugle was sounded, Velia put down her telescope and wriggled through the tiny service tunnel that connected the Queen Mother’s elegant hunting palace of burnished coral to his mansion of carved undersea stone. It was not a long swim. The service tunnel, for all that it was tiny, was still quite comfortable. A short swim up led her to a door hidden into a corner of the Arch-Wizard’s parlour. It was a room filled with crystalline furniture that floated above the ground on fixed pivots of water and force—miniature whirlpools set in flux. There were also other structures made from water-spells and weavings that flooded her being with awe and wonder.
These were not quite human furniture, even though there were elements of human design in the parlour. But there were other items from the human world, such as a painting on the wall depicting the Romance of the Rose and other items of furniture. The Queen Mother’s coveted serving dish had been set against the wall in the Arch-Wizard’s parlour, behind the chair and the long cedar-wood table scavenged off shipwrecks, polished to a lustrous shine by the chattering water-sprites who thronged the parlour.
Velia wove a simple cantata into a low sleeping-spell, meant to lull all of the Wizard’s helpers into slumber. She watched with glee as one by one they fell asleep, the gently shimmering water-sprites, and nixies, and undines; the silver seahorses and the irradiating eels. All of them, bound neatly within the net of her harmonies. Velia had always been rather proud of her song-craft.
Velia realised too late that she might have been a little too careless and a little too loud in the vibrations of magic that augmented her song. And so it was that as Velia turned with a giggle towards the serving dish, she faced the stern features of the Arch-Wizard, who towered above her rather impressively in a show of his length (and he truly had a magnificent tail). Around him, his ridiculous clown-fish familiars swam in erratic, excited patterns.
“Well, well. What do we have here, one of the Queen Mother’s minions come to do her dirty work,” he said in voice so deep and rich that Velia started to feel uncommonly invigorated.
“You could have just given it to her,” Velia said, fear making her punchy, even as she leaned towards him in interest.
“She didn’t exactly ask me for it,” said the Arch-Wizard mildly.
They faced each other for a silent moment before he broke the silence with a startling yawn. In truth, he did look enormously fatigued. That seemed to be her cue, and so Velia took the opportunity to speed and dodge past him, but she overestimated her dexterity, or perhaps she underestimated the Arch-Wizard’s reflexes.
“Not so fast, songstress!” he said as he cast a net around her. Within an instant, he had woven the strands of water into translucent rope, the rope into the delicate yet durable layers of netting infused with sonar. But his haste had a cost.
“Ouch!” Velia exclaimed as the net cut her upper arm.
“Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t mean to make the weave harsh. Here.” The Arch-Wizard eased the latticework into a confining weave that did not burn, then send a soothing eddy of water around her wounded arm that healed her.
“Uh, thanks. Can you let me go now?”
“Sorry, you’re still a thief. I’m going to let you sit by yourself and think about your life choices. I’m frankly not impressed. You’re wasting so much raw musical talent. Such beauty in your song-weaves!”
“Raw musical talent? I beg your pardon! I will have you know that I am a fully trained classical singer! And a fully matriculated siren composer!”
The Arch-Wizard could not help but smile. “Well then, you’re actually aware you’re wasting your talent. What a shame! Let’s see what we can do about that, shall we?”
With weaves of viscous liquid and aether, the Arch-Wizard directed flows of water and air that pushed her downwards from his parlour into the cellar where bottles of effervescent brew were neatly stacked and arranged. She pushed against the currents but to no avail as the weaves ferried her deeper still into this sinkhole, followed by the Arch-Wizard’s excitable clown-fish familiars.
The Arch-Wizard said, “I need a nap. All this magicking is far too much work, and you’re too much of a puzzle for me to worry about right now. Besides, you and your sisters probably shouldn’t have tried to rob me.”
His voice was mild but slightly annoyed as he pushed back the wizard’s circlet that snaked around his head in a luminescent rope of crystalline blue and obsidian. Beneath the circlet, his forehead seemed permanently wrought in worry lines while his eyebrows were aligned in bushy half-circles. His nut-brown face seemed almost like a blur. Malleable, it changed with every expression on his face, from too young to ridiculously old.
“Can’t you just punish me now and be done with it?” Velia demanded as she struggled. Her wrists had been bound together behind her back but not too painfully tight. It seemed to be less of a confinement than it was an invitation. The Arch-Wizard wasn’t even bothering. Honestly! What an insult to her skills!
“Punishing takes up far too much energy. I really do need to take a nap now. Have fun. I’m sure escaping won’t take too long. You seem smart enough. You really do need to consider better employment. Such a waste of talent. Such a waste.”
Velia uttered a half-formed expletive of frustration, but sleepy as the Arch-Wizard was, he swam upwards in a swift, economical movement, leaving her only an impression of his long, curved tail that glinted in the dark as though entire galaxies were painted upon his scales. It truly was a magnificent sight, one that seemed to cast her own life in an insignificant light. Velia wished for a world bigger than the weaves confining her and larger than the life into which the Queen Mother had entrapped her and her siblings. Despair was not a typical emotion for her, and so she hummed to herself a soft canticle of hope.
The iridescent prison of nets suspended Velia upside down within a cylindrical-shaped sinkhole, buffeted by the gently swirling currents. There were three layers holding her threshing form in place—barely even a challenge, Velia thought with some affront.
In the dark, she fumed over her current terms of employment.
She would have succeeded. She could have.
She twisted some more, gasping with exertion until she finally undid the sailor’s knot that kept her wrists bound behind her back. She reached for the knife that masqueraded as a comb, knotted within the bun that bound her teal-blue ringlets. She cleaved the iridescent nets, sliding out like entrails from a gutted piscine body. Deftly, Velia twisted her siren’s form into an elongated helix, swirling upwards with the waters but halting before she hit the sharp rock base of the sinkhole. She shot towards the grated covering that lay above her head.
With a deep breath that released bubbles, Velia prepared to sing an aria that would melt the metal. Before she did so, nut-brown fingers pushed the grating aside.
“Well then,” said the Arch-Wizard, “hurry up! I honestly expected you to be done with hanging upside down half an hour ago!”
He sounded alert and refreshed. Velia supposed he must have had such a nice nap while she was struggling to be free. She shot upwards towards the cellar. It was empty, having recently been vacated by the Arch-Wizard. He really was a fast swimmer.
As she reached the parlour, he held up the oval serving dish in his hand, frowning at it briefly before he said, “What you wanted, I believe.”
Velia shrugged. “It was what Her Majesty wanted.”
The water-sprites were piled up neatly in a basket woven of iridescent light, snoring in peace, with vacuous looks of satisfaction.
“What manner of song did you use to sing them to sleep?” asked the Arch-Wizard, curiosity plainly etched upon a face that was puzzling in the way it shifted from youth to age with every change of his expression.
His face was fluid, Velia decided, which was only natural for one who professed mastery of all liquid forms. “Just a garden-variety sleep cantata, accompanied by water-echoes,” she answered.
“I wouldn’t mind some of that myself,” said the Arch-Wizard. “They look like they are having such lovely dreams.”
She looked at the gnarled young-yet-old face of the Arch-Wizard and asked again, “Aren’t you going to punish me?”
He shrugged. “Why would I do that? You’re only doing what you’ve been asked to do. As you have been doing for the past two centuries. I’ve seen you and your sisters around. Indentured you, didn’t she? As I said earlier, you really should consider better employment!”
Velia nodded. “Well, indentured for the first fifty years, at least. Then she made us independent contractors.”
He smiled above the long moustaches that framed his mouth, “Independent contractors. Such a human term!”
Velia shrugged. “Her words, not ours. Although I daresay we like the term ourselves. Makes us sound quite accomplished.”
He smiled at her, humour lightening his face, making him seem almost handsome. Velia shook her head in disorientation.
“Did the Queen Mother tell you what she wanted with this serving dish?” His voice when he asked this was very cautious.
Velia said, “She said that it belonged to her once upon a time. Did it?”
“Human food,” the Arch-Wizard said, with a hint of the disdain in his voice. “The Queen Mother has been known to massage the truth a time or two. The serving dish is not strictly hers. And she wants it for far more than that.”
“Much of what we have in our lives originated as ideas in the human world—even in your parlour furniture.” Velia was always too happy to point out the obvious.
He raised an eyebrow at her. “All that we do is intertwined with worlds above and beneath. The Fourfold Realms converge in the Greater Ocean where the main inter-dimensional apertures reside—so much of these influences are inevitable. But I do not care much for the insidious influence of human cultures and norms in our everyday living beyond the expected.”
Velia gave him a look of exasperation that said very clearly that she was not expecting a repeat of the Grand Alchemical Scriptures of the Upper Merfolk and that she cared not for his elitism. “You’re deflecting,” she said. “What exactly is the value of this serving dish?”
“Not interested in learning, are you?” The Arch-Wizard looked her over. “But you do not seem to be well-equipped towards thievery, either. Neither you, nor your sisters who are now asleep in my coral garden. So easily overcome, really.”
Velia said, her tones deceptively gentle, “I hope you have not done harm to my sisters. And the Queen Mother would not have employed us for two centuries if she considered us inept.”
He smiled. “I would not dare harm your sisters, my Lady. Besides, what you want is such a trifling thing. A serving dish of Gaeirn! A lovely thing, no doubt. Etched with roses that move every time you sing, revealing to you... well, you will see what they reveal!”
Velia inhaled. “She did not tell us that the dish was magic!”
“Why would she? But here, see for yourself. Sing me one of those siren songs, the ones you sing to lure sailors to their doom.”
“Folk tales,” scoffed Velia. “Why would we bother with mere sailors?”
He squinted at her from beneath his bushy eyebrows. “Would you bother then, with an Arch-Wizard? Sing me a song to seduce me, so that I will be under your thrall.”
He said this last so longingly that Velia wondered aloud, “Why would you want such a terrible thing? Besides, I have never sung that song. It seems to me to be such a bother, to weave someone’s soul into the configurations of eternal servitude.”
“Perhaps,” the Arch-Wizard said. “Perhaps what I desire is oblivion. Perhaps I do not want to face the day when all the Fourfold Realms crash into our world.”
“That’s rubbish. Another folktale,” said Velia.
“You are incredibly agnostic,” said the Arch-Wizard in bemusement, his eyes perusing the lines of her face.
“All sirens are agnostic. What, did you think we were mermaids?” Velia realised she was flirting from the way her body curved towards him, from the slight lash of her tail fins against the smooth quartz floor.
“My mistake, my Lady, my mistake. But are you too afraid to sing the song of love-binding?”
“You would be bound to me for life,” said Velia. “Are you sure you wish for such a fate, you who control the waters that flow around the mer-kingdom? To never pine for another apart from me? I’m not sure I’d want such a burden.”
Her voice was doubtful as she said this, inclined towards him as she considered the puzzle of his face.
“I am quite willing to pass the responsibility to another,” said the Arch-Wizard, whose face still moved from decades to centuries with every movement of his head. “I have been performing my duty for hundreds of years, without allowing myself a moment of letting my guard down. Please, call me Rasheel. It would mean a lot to me, to have this small familiarity.”
“I still don’t quite understand what you’re after,” said Velia, who then realised what Rasheel was offering her was far more than a dubious love-thrall.
“I am offering you power, my Lady. Make me yours, and you will have power and control over the Queen Mother, and the mer-kingdom.”
Velia, a siren who had done many things in her life, and who had been the subject of more than one proposition, was truly shocked. She was shocked as she had never been in her entire life.
“I... do not wish for such a thing, I am merely a siren and an independent contractor. Besides, we’ve just met!”
Rasheel threw her a pensive look. “Will you not even try?”
“To make you feel something? Have you never felt love for anyone?” Velia uttered this in tones of disappointment.
Rasheel contemplated the silver serving dish with carved roses that seemed to move with every exhalation of their breath, every word they spoke. “I loved the woman who commissioned this from the silver-wizards of Gaeirn,” he said.
This surprised Velia. “Does the Queen Mother know this?”
“Oh yes,” said Rasheel. “Why else do you think she wants it back? I suppose no one ever told her it is bad manners to steal back something that has been given as a gift.”
“She... and... you?”
“Yes,” said Rasheel. “I am not young—neither of us are, are we?”
He threw her a look from beneath his bushy eyebrows that trailed off into the long braids framing his face. Velia considered them with an irritable tic. If she did wed this man, she was going to have to subject him to a detailed grooming.
“No, not even by siren standards am I young,” Velia answered. “But still, you do not seem nearly as old as the Queen Mother.”
His eyes glinted with mirth. “You should probably not let her hear that. But we are of the same age—and we were very much in love. Once upon a time when we were mere fry. But I have never been respectable enough to be one of the fifty royal consorts a Mer-Queen is allowed to have. But that is neither here nor there. I stopped mourning the loss of her love three centuries ago. I stopped loving her then too. Now, all that is left for me is the work I do to control our Ocean’s magicks, and to protect the apertures between worlds that lie within the deepest waters.”
“That is still an impressive task—so much power, so much adventure,” said Velia, envious and half-incredulous. She could only imagine such adventures, having led what had been such a mean and limited life.
“I would give it all up to have one long, uninterrupted nap, with dreams as sweet as you’ve given all of my sprites,” said Rasheel. His voice was a mixture of bone-deep fatigue, and worse, a kind of despair Velia had never before heard or seen in any living creature.
It was the despair that ultimately made up her mind for her.
That, she told herself, and her mounting irritation over the Queen Mother for throwing her into such a difficult situation.
She looked at the long, curving black and silver tail of Rasheel that had so many glowing lights of many colours swirling, as if the skies above the seas, and the deeper spaces beyond the skies, were all contained within it. Some of that light glowed within his eyes as well, even now within the throes of whatever inner demon consumed him. Could love arise naturally within such a being, she wondered. Could love arise within her? He did not seem to desire it, at that.
To stall, she said, “I could sing a chanson to see the dancing of the roses, if you do not mind?”
Rasheel said, “By all means, do so. I am curious to hear your voice.”
He placed the serving dish in her hands and motioned for her to sit on one of the crystalline armchairs that seemed to float above the mosaicked floor.
“If you could somehow make it a song that aids with sleep, I would be most grateful,” he said.
“You sleep too much,” said Velia, disapproving.
“I think I earned it, considering how many wars between mer-kingdoms I’ve stopped,” he answered.
Velia nodded, suddenly at a loss for words. She had only ever seen him received in the Throne Room, or at parades during the holidays—it was hard to know what to say to a merman so illustrious, she reflected. Even more so now that he had asked of her such an unexpected thing.
Velia closed her eyes and evoked within her mind the chanson she would sing, one that would complement the delicately carved roses, leaves, and bushes of the silver serving dish. When she was quite sure of every line, every trill, every descant, and every vibrato, she sang.
Soon, the waters that swirled between them were illuminated with patterns of song-weave and sonar. Those were things of wonder that Velia took for granted, although she was quite proud of her song-craft. And then the silver roses upon the serving dish unfurled, taking on shape, dimension, and hue. She wove the melody with her voice, splintering it into polyphonies as though a hundred of her were singing, but as she sang, her entire being vibrated with wonder as the serving dish gave her a glimpse into a flowering rose garden in the heart of a land so different from her own, it almost seemed to inhabit its own reality. Within the configurations of this garden she recognised enough to remember a time when she too was young, and curious enough to want to explore the world of humans in Terra Cognita.
“Oh,” she breathed, momentarily halting the song.
“Do you see now why the Queen Mother wants it back?” asked Rasheel in a tone of gentle humour, even as his eyes glowed with the effect of her song.
“Yes, more so than her other acquisitions,” said Velia.
“Well, do continue singing if you wish. Your song-craft is spectacular and I feel lighter than I have in centuries. Don’t mind me if I nap. Sleep is such a wonderful thing. I could happily just drift off into wondrous dreams for a century or five.”
His tone was sleepy and he had clearly given up on his outrageous request, looking away from her, the very cast of his body dismissive.
“You may take the serving dish back after you’re done. I’ve no use for it these days. I can’t feel anything anymore, and there are many memories I’d rather not have. All I want is to sleep, and this chanson of yours will bring me the sweetest dreams I’ve ever had. I am sure of it.”
That wistfulness in his voice, even as he prepared for another nap, galvanized her into a decision.
“No,” she said. “I will not take it back. But I will sing you a song. Not the song of thrall you asked for.”
“No?” His eyebrows rose in bushy quizzical archways above his eyes.
Velia rose from the armchair upon which she had been curled. She glided across the chamber on the golden currents of sound that braided through the deep blue waters. Sitting beside Rasheel on his translucent couch, she said, “Lay your head upon my lap, and I will sing you a song that will teach you how to feel something else beyond this ever-present need of yours for oblivion. Something beyond the grips of the demons of despair. And perhaps, you may even have sweeter dreams.”
Rasheel inhaled, and lifted his be-finned hand towards the bun that kept her hair up.
“May I?” he asked, half-apologetic.
Velia nodded her assent and closed her eyes as his fingers combed through her teal ringlets, pulling them down till her hair flowed against her naked back. Then, she drew his head down to her scaled lap of teal, aquamarine, and deep viridian scales. “Close your eyes, my Wizard. Close your eyes.”
She stroked his indigo hair from his forehead and sang a song that she had been taught upon reaching her maturity. A song she had never sung, until now. She was not sure she knew every descant, every trill and tremolo, but the reverberations of the song caused the roses in the serving dish to merge, to mould into each other in ornate, almost mosaicked impressions of petals that resolved into dozens of flowering rose bushes.
At the end of the song, Velia trembled at what she had wrought—a binding so deep her eyes welled with siren-tears. He opened his eyes in wonder as the song ended, raising himself on his elbows to stare at her.
“What have you done?” he asked as he sat up. She leaned against him but rested the palm of her left hand against his chest, halting his ardent movement closer towards her.
“Rather than taking on all of the responsibility you wanted to offload on me—” Velia’s voice was tart— “I have decided to distribute it between us. I am now as much your thrall as you are mine.”
“And in so doing, you have quite skilfully divested me of half of my powers,” Rasheel said. He sounded remarkably perplexed.
“Well, you should be careful about who you’re asking to become your mistress of the heart,” Velia said, her manner still matter-of-fact. “Some sirens are also sea-witches, you know.”
“Yes, yes. That much was evident from your brilliance with the song-weaves,” Rasheel murmured. “So, are we now in a partnership?”
“We will be, after you’ve woken up my sisters in the garden.”
“Can that be a bit later?” asked Rasheel, as he nestled towards her.
“Yes,” she agreed, “a little bit later.”
Velia allowed Rasheel several dozen smooches planted first awkwardly at the sides of her lips. He pulled away to kiss her eyes and to cup her face with a kind of wonder. Velia looked up at him, feeling unfocused. Oddly, for the very first time the features of his face never seemed more distinct to her. She moved closer to him, a cue that Rasheel seemed to be waiting for as he claimed her lips with more assertion. She found in his kiss the answer to a question she never knew she had been asking. As they kissed, and as their hands clasped at each other with the urgency of things that had been left unsaid, Velia realised that perhaps far more had been building between them before she had even released the first notes of her song.
Eventually, Velia broke off the kiss so she could gather her wits. “I think you’d better wake my sisters up and send them home so my parents can visit.”
Rasheel stifled a groan. “So soon?”
“As soon as your request for a love-binding? Didn’t think about having in-laws underfoot now, did you? Just wanted oblivion, didn’t you?”
“That wasn’t exactly what I was—” Rasheel started to say, but she broke him off with a gentle gesture of her hand.
“And, dearling?” She said in a tone that sounded like no arguments could be made.
“We won’t be returning that serving-dish to the Queen Mother.”
“I thought not, my dear,” said Rasheel in tones of resignation, even as he swam out into the coral garden to rescue his impending in-laws.