Black Pearl kept the secret until their next session on the following day. Even her friendship with the mermaid Soft Ripple was not enough to induce her to talk about this, though she had the impression that Soft Ripple sensed that something in her had changed, and was trying to puzzle out what it was.
And on the following day, during Black Pearl’s second visit to the secret grotto, in a pause for rest, Cosmo said to her: “You are a strange girl, I think, even for a mermaid. Perhaps it is because of the unhappy experience you had with that magician upstream.”
“He was a much stronger magician than you are.”
Cosmo did not appear to be upset by the comparison. “I don’t doubt it. I know that there are some whose powers exceed mine.”
“But he was wicked, and I hated him from the start. And yes, I think that you are right, there has always been something out of the ordinary about me.”
“Why do you say that?”
The mermaid shrugged her ivory shoulders. “I don’t think my parents were even surprised when I became a mermaid. It happens only to about one of four girls, you know, in the villages. No one knows in advance which girls the curse will strike, but I don’t think anyone was surprised when it struck me.”
“I admit that I have been intrigued by you, since I first saw you.” Suddenly the eyes of Cosmo blazed, so that it seemed remarkable that his voice could remain steady. “Have you kept the secret of our meetings? Even from the other mermaids who sometimes swim about with you?”
“I have kept our secret,” she said softly.
“See that you do. We have already progressed too far, much too dangerously far, for the secret to be revealed to anyone else.”
Another day, another meeting.
Cosmo had been stroking with his fingers, making magical passes, across her shoulders and her hair. Then suddenly he let her go. “The aura, the touch, of his powers I mean that one upstream still clings about you.”
Black Pearl shuddered slightly, through her whole body down to the tip of her scaly tail, as she lay exposed on the flat ledge of rock. “Then cleanse me of it, if you can.”
“I will. I will, as much as possible. But still…”
“I find it intriguing.”
Her pink lips snarled at him. “You’ve said that before. His touch was evil!”
“Oh, I agree, his was an evil magic, to be sure. But now it is gone. Only the flavor, the aura, the smell of it remains. Weak enough to be attractive. Like a pungent seasoning in food.”
“If you can’t wash it away, don’t speak of it.”
“Oh, I can wash some of it away at least. I am not totally incompetent, and there is much that I can do. But let us thank all the gods that the power of that evil wizard is gone. And I am sure that it was evil. I can sense the impression that it left on you as if you had been clamped tightly in some great, iron fist.”
“Sometimes I think that I can still feel the pressure of that fist around me.”
“No, the power of it is gone. But what I would learn of it are the shaping, the ingredients, that made it so powerful. So that my own magic, which is intended to do good, may be strengthened.”
The mermaid, lying beside the little pool that was not much bigger than a bathtub, looked up at him doubtfully.
Cosmo asked, almost pleading: “Does it seem to you that I am a bad man?”
Despite the feelings she had begun to have for the magician, it took Black Pearl a long time to answer that. “No,” she said at last.
“Then trust me. Will you trust me? It will be very hard for me to help you otherwise.” * * *
It was during that same meeting, only their third magical session in the hidden grotto, that Cosmo first slipped over Black Pearl’s head the fine chain that held the amulet. She held it up before her eyes and looked at it. The amulet was plain, almost crude, a little knot of glazed clay with symbols on it.
Having put the little chain over her head, he hesitated. Then he said: “We are almost ready to make a serious attempt now; still I fear you are not ready.” But even as he spoke his great dark eyes were glowing their message of compassion, of love, into her eyes, into her heart.
Cosmo moved a little closer, and with his right hand he brushed back Black Pearl’s long, black hair so that he could see more clearly into her eyes. Again he repeated another warning he had already given her several times.
It was this: that the cure, even if against all odds it could be achieved this early in the course of treatment, could be no more than temporary at first.
“However successful we are at this stage, you will revert to being a mermaid again, in less than a quarter of an hour quite possibly much less. Such a temporary alleviation of the curse would be a first step only. But it would also be proof that eventually other steps are going to be possible. Strong evidence that in time we will find a way to cure you completely, permanently. You and all the mermaid sisterhood.”
The mermaid nodded.
His hand took her hand as she lay floating in the shallow water. And then, as he muttered incantations, his fingers began to stroke her hand, her arm, her shoulder.
And it was during that very treatment, what Cosmo had said would be the first serious attempt, that the miracle occurred for the first time.
Black Pearl’s body, already awakened sensually by the magician’s caresses even before the change he wrought had come fully upon it her body found itself suddenly, entirely human. Completely and wholly that of a woman. Utterly female.
And Cosmo, responding to her sobs of joy with certain rather similiar sounds of his own, was right at her side when the change came. Right there to draw Black Pearl from the water, cradling her two lithe, gently kicking legs in his left arm, his right arm under her shoulders. There to swing her round with a swift motion of strong arms to the soft bed only two meters distant, where, as he said, he sometimes slept.
A quarter of an hour later, when the expected return change overtook Black Pearl, her new lover, despite all of his cautions that such a relapse was bound to happen, looked disappointed. But not for long. And she, absorbed in her new happiness, accepted the situation, too.
The sessions of magic, lovemaking, and magic again, went on. There were many such sessions, one every few days, extending over several months. Sometimes the periods of two-legged normalcy were a little prolonged once almost to half an hour but still the final, permanent cure eluded the researcher and his patient lover.
Each time Black Pearl swam into the grotto to meet him, Cosmo questioned her sternly as to whether she was continuing to keep their secret.
“We are not so deeply into this that everything your own fate as well as mine-depends upon your sharing the knowledge of what we do with no one. If you fail, the powers of magic will, I fear, doom you forever to keep your mermaid shape. Indeed I have no wish to frighten you, my darling, but I must say this they might warp you into something truly hideous.”
So Black Pearl continued to keep the secret faithfully.
She would have done anything, that the burning joy of her meetings with her lover might be made permanent.
Autumn was yielding to the onset of this land’s brief winter when a night came that changed everyone’s life. A riverboat, whose origin Black Pearl was never to discover, came plunging down the Tungri from upstream, hurtling through the series of rapids and cascades known as the Second Cataract. The passage was extremely difficult even in bright daylight, even for an experienced crew. In wind and rain and clouds and fading daylight, the crew of this ship probably never had a chance. The bits and pieces of their upriver craft that later washed ashore were of no familiar make.
The riverboat might well have been in precipitous flight from someone or something. In any case it failed to make the passage, which only experienced boatmen who were favored by a measure of luck could ever hope to complete successfully. The craft was knocked to pieces upon the rocks within the gorge, with the loss of all hands so far as could be told.
Most of the inhabitants of the valley, the many who lived on land and the few who dwelt in water, were not aware of the wreck until hours or days later. Black Pearl, because she had just left a secret rendezvous on Magicians’ Island, happened to be first to reach the scene of the disaster.