The mermaid spat the words. “Cosmo Malolo is the name he’s known by in the world.”
Bonar, shocked, demanded: “Cosmo is still alive?”
Soft Ripple ignored the clan leader’s question. She said: “I didn’t dare to come back here until this morning. I hadn’t had any contact with Pearl all night, and I was more worried than ever. I looked for her, and I found her here like this.”
Gesner until now had been listening to the mermaid’s story in silence. Now he said sharply: “Let me see that amulet that you are wearing.”
Soft Ripple raised a pale hand to the chain around her throat. “I took it from Black Pearl’s body. What’s wrong with that? She was my friend.”
Other people in both boats spoke to her more softly and courteously, asking about the amulet. At last she said: “Many of the girls in the river wear ornaments around their necks. Some wear trinkets that they find along the bottom of the river. Some are given baubles by fishermen, because the men hope that the mermaids can send them good luck in return I don’t think it ever really works that way. And some of us are given presents by our families who live on land.”
Gesner asked: “But do men ever give you these? I mean, as they might give presents to a girl with legs?”
“Lacking legs and what’s between them,” the girl said simply, “we have no men. What man would want one who can never truly be a woman? We mermaids have only each other, and our short lives to be endured.” She turned to Zoltan and flared up at him: “Why do you weep for her?” It seemed really to puzzle her that a man with legs should do so. “It is we who are still alive who are unlucky. What are you doing? Why do you want to put her body in the boat? Let her go down the river like a dead fish, and be forgotten, the way the rest of us are going.”
“The point about the amulet she wears,” said Gesner, “is that I can recognize cousin Cosmo’s magical sign on it.”
Soft Ripple stared at him. When his words had penetrated, she tore the amulet from her neck with fear and loathing, and threw it away into the river. “I never thought that it came from him!” she cried.
Zoltan was sitting now with his head down, not really paying attention to the others.
Mark reached from the boat and caught the raging girl by the hair. “There’ll be time later to have a tantrum,” he said, in a new and harder voice. “If you can tell me where the Sword is now, do so.”
“You are wearing it at your side.” But Soft Ripple said this sullenly, not as if she really believed it.
The prince released his grip. “I wear its fellow, which has a different power, and a different mark that Vulcan put on it.”
“What power?” It was hard to tell how seriously the question was intended.
“That of cutting stone, swiftly and easily. Ask this Malolo chief here how I cut my way into his stronghold.” And the prince’s hand touched the hilt of the Sword he wore.
“Indeed.” The mermaid flirted for a moment completely beneath the surface, and up again, much as a wholly human swimmer might have done.
Then, facing the prince again, she asked: “You want Farslayer to deal with your enemies, do you?”
“Yes. Especially I want to keep them from getting it.
And they are your enemies as well, whether you know it or not. Chief among them is the wizard who held Black Pearl in thrall when she was far upstream.”
“Very well. I know where the Sword Farslayer is now, and I will tell you.”
For a moment there was silence, the people in both boats questioning whether they had heard her words aright. Then everyone burst out with questions.
The mermaid hushed them all with a small raised hand. “I know where it is because I saw the demon hide it, yesterday. I think he may have taken it from Black Pearl, though I don’t know where she got it but I did see the demon with a Sword. He hid it hastily. He knew that I was watching him, and he would have killed me, too. Except that there was something else he wanted to do, something he thought even more important than killing me to keep me quiet.”
Soft Ripple looked at Prince Mark. “He wanted to go to you. You were sitting in a boat, a boat smaller than either of these, out near the middle of the river, with some of these same people with you. So desperate was the demon to confront you that he would not even pause to kill me first. Someday perhaps he will return and find me and kill me but I will first tell you where the Sword is hidden.”
“Right where he put it. Far underwater, in the deepest channel, not far from Magicians’ Island.”
“Take me to that Sword now. If you help me to get it, I swear by Ardneh I’ll do my best to see that every mermaid in this river is given her legs again. I do not think that is impossible.”
Soft Ripple looked at the prince in silence. Then she said, “Follow me,” and turned and swam away.
Black Pearl’s body had already been hoisted aboard one of the boats, and decently covered with a canvas sail.
Soft Ripple stopped, swimming in place, at a spot where the current was swift, within twenty meters or so of Magicians’ Island. The oarsmen in both boats worked steadily to hold their craft beside her.
She said: “The Sword you seek is approximately straight below me. If any of you have the strength of a demon, and can swim like a mermaid, come down with me, and move away the rock the demon placed atop his prize to hold it safe. That rock is more than I, or a hundred like me, could move a centimeter.”
Bonar was ready in a moment with the beginning of a plan to move the rock with ropes and many boats, and the help of other mermaids.
Mark instead unsheathed the Sword he was wearing at his belt.
Zoltan had by now recovered a little from the first shock of Black Pearl’s death. “Give Stonecutter to me,” he told his uncle, “and I’ll dive with Soft Ripple, and cut up the rock. I’m a strong swimmer.”
Mark, looking at him, thought that Zoltan at this moment was also somewhat reckless of his own life. “No,” said Mark.
“Why not? Cutting the stone will be easy.”
The mermaid was almost laughing at both of them. “No, you stay in the boat. All of you. Please, or I will have to pull you up out of the water as well. The Sword you want to find lies much too deep, and the current down there is far too swift and cold for anyone with legs to swim in it.”
Then she held out her hands to Mark for Stonecutter. “Give me the Sword you wear, and I will dive alone and get the other one for you. If I can chop the boulder into little bits as easily as he says, then the rest will be easy, too.”
Mark hesitated just noticeably. But then he handed over the Sword of Siege.
The mermaid smiled at him, and let Stonecutter’s weight bear her down below the surface.
Time passed, slowly and intensely. The boats maintained their positions. Mark wished that he had started counting, and wondered if anyone else had. So far, he thought, no more time had passed than a skillful, breathing human diver might require to maintain herself underwater. Or not much more
Suddenly the water erupted, revealing the head and shoulders and arms of Soft Ripple. She was tailing water strongly in the swift current, keeping herself in position to hold up a naked, gleaming Sword. On her two raised hands the mermaid offered the weapon up to Mark.
He took it from her carefully and turned the hilt to see its symbol. The Sword was Stonecutter.
Soft Ripple said: “The other one is free now. But I can carry only one up to the surface at a time.”
With a flick of her tail, she dove again.
Almost absently Mark wiped dry the Sword of Siege upon his sleeve, and slowly he resheathed it. Everyone was watching the water once again, and again some were counting silently.
Ben suddenly snarled out an oath and pointed. The mermaid had reappeared, holding another Sword. But this time she was at the distance of the Isle of Magicians, where she had leaped out of the water almost like a seal, to sit upon a low, wet rock.
She waved across the water with the Sword, offering a mocking greeting to the people in the boats.