My brother died young.
We are used to death. Our people go to war endlessly; we sharpen our teeth on the bones of the ones we drown, and in return, the finless ones net us, gut us, burn our flesh.
But my brother died before he married, and it was an ill-omen. The eldest son of our brood, he was meant to rise high, to command the deep monsters, to make the waves turn. My brother Diev was to marry well and have sons and daughters and everything in between.
He was speared by a finless, and we watched his head rot at the edge of the sea.
We cannot go landwise. Too vulnerable for a start, and the finless watch their beaches like crabs, scuttling this way and that, their eyes pinched and ugly. They have set a line of posts on the edge of the world, deep in the sands. Each spike bears the head of one of our risen. We do not care. The risen have gone to the Great Water where they will fish and fight for all eternity. It is a warrior’s death to rise, to fight the hooks and nets and harpoons. It’s a warrior’s honour to be set on a finless man’s spike.
My brother died young, and his ghost haunts the waters. He cries in the corridors of coral, and I see him silvering behind me as I move through the kelp forests. He is like a shark, almost there and not.
My brother did not die in battle; he fell in love, and his love broke him.
“Osam,” my mother calls, and I follow the sound of her voice through the drifting dark, trying to ignore the shadow on my tail. I find her in a spiral of cold water, her hair billowing around her, fishes small as krill dancing between her tresses. My mother is known far and wide as a great beauty; she is the colour of sun through indigo water, her hair is the glass green of a wave raised proud in a storm. Her Patterns dance only when she lets them; her skin gives nothing away. She hunts better than any barracuda or eel, her teeth ragged and sharp. My mother is a fine warrior, and she has dragged many finless down. Her voice can spell them senseless, rip the white from the crests of waves, and shred the finless’ sails into tatters.
It is easy to drown a finless once they have fallen in love with your music, your skull song.
I wait before her. As a first-brood daughter, it is my place to follow her into battle, to kill as she has, to sing, and to drown. As a first-brood daughter, I should have told her where Diev was going. I knew. His ghost tugs my tailfins, and I ignore him.
“We are going to give your brother a wedding,” Mother says, and the ghost pulls harder, his claws tearing the thinnest parts of my tail fin. She ignores him because she cannot see him; I ignore him because it hurts to do otherwise.
“A wedding?” Not a resurrection, not even for the son of an empress beneath the sea.
I want to point out that he is already two moons dead, but I’m not so stupid as to mention the obvious to my mother. Not these days. I still have scars. Diev swims right up alongside me, and I feel the trembling of his skin, the brush of fins, the faint currents of his movement.
My mother nods. “Seventeen of our people have risen to the Great Water since his death. We must set the world right, or we will lose more. I will choose him a bride and call on the priests to conduct the ceremony. Once he is wed, our ill-luck will be over.”
Choose my brother a bride. I want to laugh, but all my knowledge is coiled up in my throat, as though I have swallowed a lobster whole and it is lodged there, scraping me raw with its legs and claws. Patterns flash, and I use all my calm to bring them under control, to settle on one that is soothing, obedient.
“No,” says Diev, but who listens to him. No one ever did.
“When will this wedding take place,” I ask, “and who will you want for his bride?” There are families who have lost daughters—I can think of a few who will want to settle their own ghosts. The dead who have not risen must be placated, made quiet.
“The girl Fael,” my mother tells me. She moves gently with the current, silvery trails of bubbles rising from her drifting hair, and the fish skitter and dart. “Her parents still have her bones. She will do.” And they will not argue against my mother’s command. For their dead daughter to marry my dead brother will be a great honour for them. “Soon,” she says. “Sooner is better. There is a storm coming, and I would sing battle without the burden of a cursed death.”
I am dismissed, sent off to gather my brother’s bones from where they rest. It would be better if I could retrieve his skull, but the ceremony will stand, skull or none. The finless left his body at the water’s edge after they had cut off his fins and mutilated what was left of his corpse. I should feel rage, I know. Instead, there is a deep emptiness. I miss my brother. I am sad that I never understood that the last time I saw his face, it was the last time. If I had understood, I would have been a better sister, I think. I hope.
“You didn’t know,” Diev says, as though he can taste my thoughts. Perhaps he can. Perhaps the dead have a magic we cannot grasp.
“I was going to tell Mother about your secret,” I say. It is the first time I have acknowledged his ghost, and guilt pierces me like urchin needles. The pain is enough to make me stall, curl in on myself. Around me the kelp forest seethes and ebbs, dancing high and spiralling up to the golden reaches of the water. Here it is dark, almost dark enough not to see him.
“I know,” he says sadly. “I was there, remember?”
I saw him with his love; his head above the water, his hair slicked back, his chin tilted up. And the boy on the boat, the finless, with head bowed down to meet him. The two of them singing a song that was not about death and drowning. And when they parted, I found my brother and told him that if he did not sing the finless down and tear him apart, I would tell our mother, and she would do it for him. She was never one for subtle punishment.
“Why are you here?” I flick my tail and spin round to finally face him. My perfect brother, hatched from the same brood. We were as close as eggs once. And then I lost him to the land and the air. My skin stings, and even I can see the ripples of disquiet and guilt threading new colours across my body, a flickering dance of blues and yellows. The Pattern of Scattered Shells. “Why did you not rise? Now Mother wants to give you a death wedding, and you will be bound forever to Fael. Is that what you wanted?”
“Of course not,” Diev says sadly. “But only those who die in battle rise. I was killed by treachery.” He is right enough about that. The Great Water is a spirit sea meant only for our bravest and best. Diev should be there; it is only the manner of his death that nets him.
“Finless.” I spit the word like venom, inking the water. “Your stupid finless boy betrayed you, and now you are cursed to this half-life.”
“He did not. No finless knew, no finless speared me and raised my head on a spike.”
I seethe, and the colours racing across my skin fade to muted waves of cream and brown. Confusion. Horror. I turn pale, all Pattern erased. I want to ask, but I already know.
“Why do you think she wishes for a wedding, when she cannot see me?” Diev asks. Our mother has lived for centuries; she will not show her guilt in her Patterns. But I can imagine her actions easily enough. We are hers to do with as she wishes. Our skins are threaded with the lines of her disapproval. If she caught Diev with his finless boy, she would not have given him time to repent, to pretend or make excuses. I know my mother well enough to know she is quick to temper; quicker still to show us the depths of her displeasures.
And she could gut her own son, if she were moved.
“What am I supposed to do?” I ask. I cannot go against my mother, not unless I wish to also be made a dead bride for some other unfortunate ghost.
“Give her the bones of another,” Diev says, as though it is that simple.
And perhaps it is. My mother would not know one pile of child’s bones from another. After all, there are so many of us.
I was the one who took his body to the grave of fishes and let the things of the sea pick at his decaying flesh until all that was left were the white spars that spelled the shape of him. I sat at his grave and sang to keep the larger predators away, his bones safe. There is no way of setting a ghost to rest if you have lost their bones. “If I do that, you will still be here,” I point out.
“No.” Diev shakes his head, and although he is silvery and unreal, the soothing waves of the Pattern of Sharing Fish move across his ghost skin. The colours are faded but still clear. “I want you to take them to him.”
“To him,” I repeat flatly. “Death has addled your brain.” My brother is asking an impossibility. A grotesque inversion of our death marriage: to hand his bones to some finless creature, a landwise monster.
Or worse, he is asking for something few have done lightly, and only at great cost. A life costs a life, after all.
“Please,” Diev says, and this time his Pattern is plain. He is pleading, invoking the egg-pattern of our bond as siblings. It is rarely used, a mark of his desperation. Of the love between us. A sibling song.
“Fine,” I say. “Tell me how to find this boy of yours.”
It’s easy enough, once I have gathered his bones. Diev leads me to where he and his finless boy met, where they fell in love. Even though Diev is dead, the boy sits on the sand with his feet in the water, waiting for a meeting that he must know will never happen again. He is a thing almost of our world but not. He looks a little like us in the shape of his head and his upper body, but he is too pale; his skin a dead expanse under the moonlight, a patternless horror. He is finless. A splittail monster with narrow eyes.
“How do you know what he thinks?” I ask. I have risen my head above the water. We are hidden in the cleft of a clutch of rocks, the water lapping over the sound of our voices. My voice. Diev speaks only for me now. No one sees him but me. “His skin shows nothing.”
Diev flicks his fingers across the water. The moon is low, a curved talon but still bright enough to light his boy, the long lines of him like bones. “You’ll see,” he says. “They use their voice.”
“To show their emotion?” What a strange thought. We use our voices for magic; we sing the world into shapes, coax fishes to us, coax finless to us, change the way the wind blows, and make the waves rise with the song we sing. Our voices are our lives, ourselves. “So how do they use magic?”
“I don’t think they have any,” Diev says softly, but his Patterns show distance. He is staring at his boy, who has raised his head and is looking across the waters to where we are hidden.
Can he hear me? I clutch Diev’s wrapped bones to my chest. They are wound together with weed and my own hair, threaded over and under. They are all that is left of my brother’s physical form. “What will happen if I go to him?”
“Nothing, I promise.” Diev nudges me, and I swim forward, the water growing shallower and shallower, my fins dragging against the edge of my world.
Sand scrapes my bundle of bones, and I wait, resting my tail against the bottom of the sea. The boy has not startled, though his pinched eyes have grown wider as he watches my approach. He stands and wades into the sea until the muddy water laps about his knees. We stare at each other, two warriors meeting in a strange parley.
“You look like him,” he says after a while. His mouth forms our words easily, though his tongue mangles the tune, the lilt of the shapes. How long had Diev and this boy known each other, for him to speak our tongue? I glance sidelong, and my brother flashes the Pattern of Minor Apologies: a quick skitter of yellows that are gone almost as soon as I look.
“Hello?” The boy’s face twists as though hooks pull at it from the inside, and his voice changes, rising in tone. “I’m sorry if I have offended you. You’re Diev’s sister, right?”
The way he says my brother’s name is the only time his words are beautiful. He says it perfectly, like a spill of water from the edge of a raised shell. His face is damp, as though he has been swimming, and around his eyes the skin has turned the raw red of an untended wound.
“Yes.” I raise my bundle. “I brought you his bones.” At his silence, I add, “For a death-wedding.” There can be no death-wedding for the two of them. The finless boy is still alive. I suppose I could kill him if it would make my brother happy.
“Oh.” He makes no move to take them, and I lower them until the bones float in my hands, bobbing against the surface of the silvered water. “I— What am I supposed to do with them?” he asks.
The words are whispered, and I am beginning to understand what Diev means. I can hear the emotion in his voice, the strain of terrible loss, of sadness. It catches on his words and shreds them small.
In empathy, I flash the Pattern of Great Devastation, all swirling blacks and sickening violets. There are spells to bring back the dead, I want to tell him, but I do not know how to explain the enormity of such a thing. I look to Diev. He wanted me to see the boy’s pain, his loss, to feel the sounds in his magicless voice. No Minor Apologies shimmer across his ghost skin this time, just the dead emptiness of his own sadness. He understood that seeing this would break my resolution to pretend I could do nothing for the two of them.
“You knew,” I hiss at him. What he wanted when he brought me here; what he knows it will cost me. I have always loved my brother, and I have never wanted him to be hurt. It’s why I threatened to tell Mother. Not because I truly would, but because I did not want him hooked and gutted by a finless love.
“I don’t know what you mean,” the boy says, confusion thrumming through his voice. “I’m sorry.” Water spills down his face, as though he is offering parts of his soul to the sea. “I don’t know your rituals.”
Stupid finless, he thinks I am angry about a stupid wedding. He has no concept of what my brother is asking. That his finless sorrow is the coin Diev knew would sway me to cast a spell so terrible and beautiful. It is no small magic to raise the dead, and the price is high. High enough to peel my guilt from me like a skin grown too small and tight.
The boy takes the bones from me, gently, and holds them to his chest. His fingers burn when they brush mine.
Will I do this? I suppose I will. Better a resurrection than a death-wedding. At least this way there will be life, of one kind or another. I feel calmer than I have in years, as though the knowledge of this imminent end has soothed all the fear and anger that ever raged within me. “Put the bones on the sand,” I tell him.
“Thank you,” Diev says.
“Don’t,” I say. I do not know if I am talking to myself, to Diev, or to this stupid finless thing he fell in love with. “Don’t speak.” My skin prickles as it shifts and flickers.
When the boy is done, I indicate for him to mark a space for the spell to work. He pulls huge strands of kelp across the sand and forms a clumsy circle about my brother’s bones. It will do. He watches as I draw closer with the rising tide, waiting until the edge of the water laps against the dull brown trunks and fronds. The day is turning, and the sky will lighten. It must be soon.
“Go,” I whisper, and my brother’s ghost strokes my face, then leaves the water, leaves me.
He heaves up to his bones, curls himself around them, and waits for me to sing.
And I do. I sing myself empty, wrapping the notes of my voice around bone and ghost, pulling sand and kelp into the empty spaces. The finless boy sits motionless on the sand, watching as I sing the shape of his breath into my brother’s seaweed lungs, the water on his face into my brother’s new-grown flesh. I sing the strands of my hair into veins, seawater into blood.
I know when Diev’s ghost becomes visible because the boy gasps, calls out his name. I cannot hush him, cannot break the skull song, so I pull that in too, weaving the taste of my brother’s name into a tongue of shells, a voice of rushing water. I twist his ghost fins into split tails, rearrange his bones. Part by part, my brother returns, and my voice grows duller and weaker, until, when the sun finally pitches red heat over the cold line of the sea, my voice falters and is gone.
Our voices are our greatest weapons, and I have given mine away. I have traded all my magic for a life.
The splittail monster that was once my brother’s ghost, once my brother’s bones, holds out his arms to look at its lifeless skin. It is unchanging in the dawn. It shows me nothing. Grief and loss sweep over me, and I feel my own skin deaden. Twice now I have lost my brother. Once to death and treachery, and now to love.
His finless boy holds him close for a moment, and then they part and my brother crawls a little way into the water, awkward in his ugly new body, tailless and oddly-jointed. “Thank you,” he whispers to me. “I know I cannot return this gift, but you will not lose me, I promise.”
I already have, and we both know it. He is of the land now.
My brother did not die young. My brother did not die in battle. My brother is not one of the risen spirits, and he never will be. When he dies, no Great Water will cradle him. He lives in a new skin.
He comes to the water’s edge every night to sing for me the songs I can no longer sing, with his empty, magicless voice. When he runs out of words, he puts his hands in the water and they stay strange and pale, and I hold them, and I am glad I cannot speak.
Even if I could, I would not break his love to bring him back to me.