IN the middle of the day the black-haired mermaid was drifting carelessly in a summery river, letting herself be carried slowly through the first calm pool in the Tungri below the thunder of the cataract. It was a pool that was almost big enough to be called a lake, surrounded by the greenery and bitter memories of the shores.
Her name was Black Pearl, and she had been a mermaid now for something like six years, even though she had been born with two good legs and no tail at all, into a family of fisherfolk seemingly as far removed as anyone could be from magic.
Black Pearl’s pale face, now framed by the water, held an expression of intent listening, as if she might be trying to read some information from the open sky. Her black hair swirled in the water around her head, her small breasts poked above the surface. Drifting immobile now, holding her tail perfectly still, she was allowing the current to carry her out of the broad pool which was almost a lake, on a course that would take her between the two islands that were the most prominent features of this portion of the river.
To judge by the expression on Black Pearl’s face, if the sky was indeed trying to tell her anything, she did not care for the message it conveyed.
Mermaids’ Island, overgrown now with summer’s own green magic, slid by to the mermaid’s north, on her left hand as she floated on her back. Magicians’ Island, somewhat smaller and stranger and somewhat less green, with a certain aura of the forbidden about it, would soon be passing to her south.
According to her own best calculation, Black Pearl had recently turned eighteen years of age, at the beginning of the summer. She knew, therefore, that she had not very many years of life remaining. Mermaids, fishgirls, of her age never did. Black Pearl’s mother would be able to remember her age with accuracy, she supposed. But for years now her mother had no longer wanted to come to the shore and talk with her. If, indeed, her mother was still alive. A long time had passed since Black Pearl had tried to see any of her relatives.
As for the bitter memories;
Somewhere to the south and west of where she drifted now, no more than a few kilometers over the water, was Black Pearl’s home village though it was home to her no longer. Now, the only semblance of a home she knew was Mermaids’ Island. Her only family were the two dozen or so other fishgirls inhabiting this stretch of the Tungri, and with many of them Black Pearl did not get on at all.
If she made the effort, and sent her mind groping under a cloud of black and evil magic for the appropriate memories, Black Pearl could vaguely recall being caught, lured ashore from these waters three or four years ago. Caught in a net, and sold, and carried upstream riding in a tank of water carried in a wagon driven by strangers. Upstream, she had first become part of some small traveling show.
And then, somehow, she had been with that relatively innocent traveling show no more. But still she had been upstream, somewhere, so far that there the Tungri bore a different name. There she had been under the domination of a terrible and evil magician, whose face she could recall but not his name. A magician who had used her. There were certain gates of memory beyond which she was always afraid to go.
Outside those ominous gates, memory produced another face, this one with a clear name attached, that she had known briefly in those strange days. It was the face of a young man with curly hair, and who walked upon two legs of course as far as Black Pearl knew, nowhere in the world did there exist any young men who were equipped with tails and scales instead of legs that fate was reserved for females. The name of this young man with curly hair and two strong legs was Zoltan, and though she still sometimes dreamed of him, in recent months such dreams were becoming rare.
Now, at the pace of the river’s flow, here about that of a walking man, Magicians’ Island was drawing near. With mild surprise the mermaid observed that she might actually be about to drift ashore on it, where only moments ago she had expected to pass at a good distance.
Drifting still, Black Pearl raised her head slightly from the water, looking down almost the full length of her body, white skin above the hips and silver scales below. Skin and scales alike were as magically immune to summer’s sun as they were to winter’s watery cold. As she raised her head, the ends of her long black hair floated about her delicate white breasts.
Once Zoltan’s hand had touched her there.
Thoughts of Zoltan abruptly vanished. Only now did Black Pearl realize that there was a kind of music, Pan music, pipe music, in the air, and that for the last several minutes she had not been drifting in such perfect freedom as she had imagined. Rather the music had been drawing her unawares, influencing her ever so slowly, and gently inducing her to steer herself by subtle movements of her tail toward the island.
The music was coming had been coming, for now it ceased from somewhere among the greenery and rocks that made up the irregular shoreline, all strange projections and hidden coves, of Magicians’ Island.
And now abruptly the musician became visible. A young man, one Black Pearl had never seen before, a well-dressed youth, stood staring at her from behind some of the tall reeds of that unpredictable shoreline. One of the young man’s hands was holding the panpipe, letting it hang loosely as if it had been forgotten. Though the instrument was silent, the subtly entrancing music it had produced seemed still to be hanging in the air.
This young man was nothing at all like Zoltan. She had a good look at this one now, and his intense dark eyes returned her stare as she came drifting past him at a distance of no more than ten meters.
“I have been trying to summon up the spirits of sunlight,” he called to the drifting mermaid in a rich tenor voice, at the same time holding up the panpipe carelessly for her to see. “Trying to call into being an elemental, composed of summer and the river. And, lo and behold! Success, beyond my fondest hopes! What a vision of rare beauty have I evoked to gaze upon!”
“Even in summer,” Black Pearl said and with her tail moving underwater she stopped her drifting motion gracefully “even now the depths of the river are dark and cold, and full of hidden, ugly things. Are you sure you really wanted to raise an elemental of that kind?” A careless wave of the panpipe in the young man’s hand dismissed the idea altogether. Judging by the animated expression on his face, a busy mind was rushing forward.
“Will you sit near me for a few moments?” The question was asked of the mermaid in tones of the gravest courtesy, even though he who asked it did not bother to wait for a reply. Instead he came stepping toward her through the muddy shallows, with little concern for his fine boots or clothing. At the very edge of the current he sat himself down cross-legged on a flat rock whose top was no more than a few centimeters above the restless surface of the river, and once he was seated there gave trial of a few more notes upon the pipes of Pan.
This time, thought Black Pearl, if it was indeed a magical net that had drawn her to this island, it was a very subtle one. Not like that other time, when she had been sold upstream like so many kilograms of fish.
Curiosity overcame caution. With a surge of her body and a spray of droplets, Black Pearl came sliding lithely out of the water to sit, mermaid fashion, upon another rock, a little bigger but very similarly situated, about three meters from the one where the young piper had settled. She thought he was a few years older than herself, and now that she looked at him closely she could see by his jewelry and clothing that he possessed at least some of the outward trappings of the magician. It was a subject in which she had firsthand experience.
But if this youth was indeed a wizard, still somehow she found nothing about him frightening. “Now that you have caught me,” she asked saucily, “what do you mean to do? Sell me up the river to live in a tank, for country folk to goggle at in fairs?”
“I? Sell you? No, not I.” And the young man seemed not so much scornful of that idea as hardly able to comprehend it. It was as if the ideas of capturing and selling lay so far from the place where his thoughts were occupied that he could not accept them as entirely real. “And you have gray eyes,” he murmured, looking at her closely.