And he raised the panpipe to his lips again and tooted on it, displaying moderate skill. He sat there on the rock wearing his ill-fitting wizard’s paraphernalia, which somehow looked as if it did not truly belong to him at all. He was very handsome, and though he was almost as young as she, somehow Black Pearl had already caught the flavor or image of something tragic about him.
She said challengingly: “I’ve been sold up the river, you know, once already.”
The dark eyes fixed on her again. “Really? I didn’t know that. But I did think from my first look at you that there was something…” He put the silent panpipe away, letting it fall into his pocket, and made a polite gesture toward rising, which was hard to accomplish neatly on his slippery rock. He said, as if introducing himself to an equal: “My name is Cosmo Malolo.”
Malolo. He was a member, then, of one of the valley’s two contending clans, whose domain included her home village among others. But it had been people from the other clan, or so thought Black Pearl, who had sold her up the river before.
“My name is Black Pearl,” she said in turn, remembering the manners of her childhood, those ten or twelve years in which she had been wholly human. But she stared at the young man levelly, being as ready to assume equality as he was. Mermaids were beyond, or beneath, the usual rules of social intercourse, as their families of fisherfolk were not.
She saw the young magician’s gaze pass, hungrily for a moment, across her breasts, and she made no move to try to cover them with her hair. Mermaids had nothing to hide, very little to lose, and little to fear in the way of rape. Or so Black Pearl thought. She was as far beyond fear as she was beyond courtesy.
He looked away from her at last, and once more seated himself on his rock, this time settling squarely, knees up, elbows outside knees, staring at the linked fingers of his two hands, on which certain rings of power flashed in the sun.
“Let me speak to you plainly, Black Pearl,” Cosmo said in a level voice, not looking directly at her. “It was not the spirits of sunlight that I sought to call with my music today, or any elemental of the river. I set out to call up a mermaid, and I have done so. But please believe that my purpose was not to capture you or sell you.”
There was a pause, long enough so that at last the mermaid felt compelled to ask: “Why, then?”
“It may be no accident that you, out of all the fishgirls in the Tungri, were the one my little spell attracted. Oh, it’s only a very little spell indeed. Quite gentle. You can break it at any moment, if you wish. Plunge off that rock and swim away.”
“I know that. I can feel my freedom. But I am still here.”
“Good. Black Pearl” and here his dark eyes turned full upon her once again “are you happy to be a mermaid? Or would you like to walk the land on two good legs once more?”
“That is a madman’s question. What woman could ever be happy like this?” And the flatness of her tailfins smacked at the water, with a violence worthy of some much larger creature.
He looked a question at her.
Her anger quivered in her voice now. “Don’t you understand? We lived on land, all of us, until we were ten or twelve years old, not knowing that this was going to happen to us, but knowing that it might. All because of some curse pronounced a hundred years ago, in that damned stupid feud between your family and those others. And then one day, like a bad dream really coming true, the curse struck me. And when that happens it is really the end of life. Because what is there for a mermaid to live for? We can never be women. We can never walk, never be away from the smell of the river and of fish. And in a few more years the curse strikes its final blow, and we die, and float down the river like so many dead fish for the turtles to eat. Have you ever seen an old mermaid? One who lived long enough to have gray hair?”
Halfway through this tirade the young man, Cosmo as he had named himself, had begun shaking his head soberly. When Black Pearl was finished he said quietly: “I believe your answer. Believe me, in turn, that I did not ask the question lightly.”
“Why then do you ask it at all?”
“Because I think I may be able to help you.”
“Help me how?”
“Help you to cease to be a mermaid.” With a swirl of the short wizard’s cape that hung from his shoulders he stood up on the rock. “How willing and able are you to keep a secret?”
Before the day was over Black Pearl had learned from the young magician of the existence of a grotto on Magicians’ Island. In the island rather; it was a strange cave of a place carved out at some time in the dim past for some purpose of magic or ritual that no one any longer understood or believed in. A daring mermaid could reach this grotto easily by swimming underwater for only a few meters, from an entrance almost un-findable amid the outer limestone rocks of the island’s upstream end, and emerging at last into a pool in the bottom of a roofed cave near the island’s center. Here on this island, as Cosmo said in welcoming her to the grotto, the influences were favorable for good magic.
But mermaids as a rule kept clear of this small isle entirely, for there were certain frightening things, creatures of magic, who dwelt here. Black Pearl became fully aware of those powers for the first time only when, at the young magician’s insistence, she was swimming through the tunnel. When the powers came buzzing invisibly around her ears, considerable determination was required for her to go on. Had she not already begun to believe Cosmo’s promises to her, she would have managed to turn around somehow no matter that the underwater tunnel was barely wide enough for her to pass straight through and would have hurried back to the open river.
As it was, she clenched her teeth and swam on, meanwhile hearing and feeling the magic powers as they swarmed about her head and body. They were small, no more intelligent than insects, and like certain insects indifferent as to whether they moved in air or water.
But the tunnel was really very short, and the guardian powers did not sting, at least in the case of this invited visitor. Black Pearl was intrigued by what she found at the inner end of the tunnel. The small pool and its enclosing cave had rough walls of stone and appeared to be partly a natural formation. Higher up there were a couple of ways into the cave for people who breathed only air, and walked on land. Through those openings enough daylight was coming in now, on a bright day, to make the place almost cheerful.
Still Cosmo had a small oil lamp burning, at least partly for magical purposes, as Black Pearl supposed.
There was an easy, sloping ledge on each side of the little pool in which the tunnel terminated, and at the magician’s invitation Black Pearl sat on one of these flanges of rock. She and the young magician talked for a while, and as the minutes passed she gradually came to feel at ease.
They discussed, among other things, her history. In general it was rare for any mermaid to come back to this valley after having been sold away. Rare, but not unheard of. And in Black Pearl’s case, at least, no complaining purchaser had so far come looking for her. That had been known to happen in other cases in the past.
Cosmo expressed his own quiet outrage over the whole situation, his own quiet determination to find a way by which the mermaid curse could be ended for good and all.
Only then, when the mermaid had begun to feel fully at ease with him, did Cosmo’s magical tests begin.
Words were chanted, incense was burned. By the power of the young wizard invisible forces were gathered in the air of the grotto and then dispersed again. Black Pearl’s tail remained firmly in place, and she gave no sign of growing legs. The problem, said Cosmo, as he had expected from the beginning, was proving to be a difficult one, and a single session of course was not enough to develop a proper counterspell.
Again and again, on that day of their first meeting, before Black Pearl swam away through the narrow tunnel, Cosmo pleaded and threatened and urged absolute secrecy upon her. He assured her again and again that his magical investigations, her hope of ever being cured, depended entirely upon that.