The lady had grown animated in telling her story. “Let our families feud and kill each other if that was what they wanted. We would get away, and live our own lives, lives of peace and decency, somewhere else.”
“Of course”and her animation fled”we would have to avoid my father at all costs.”
“And then,” said Lady Yambu, “one night your father caught up with you.”
The two boats still made progress toward the south shore, while the mermaid continued to swim beside them. Now, reviving from the near silence of pain and despair, she once again shrieked curses against Megara and her beloved Cosmo.
Lady Meg continued to ignore her. But Zoltan, listening to Soft Ripple, believed what she said, or most of it, and thought that most of the other people in the boats believed her also. Zoltan wondered if Megara had ever suspected that her lover had been given to seducing mermaids. If so, Megara had put the idea firmly from her, and was not going to entertain it now.
Judging by Megara’s expression, she was still refusing to credit such outrageous allegations, or even to think about them. Refusing to admit that such creatures as lowly fishgirls could have any important role to play in anything. That anything about them could be of any importance to the important people of the world.
But the lady in the boat was more than willing to converse with Mark, the prince who would accept her and listen to her as an equal. “I loved him,” she repeated brightly, proudly, confidingly, as if she and Mark were the only people on the river. “We met on the island the first time quite by accident. We loved each other from the first.”
Again the mermaid screamed something foul.
The lady ignored the fishgirl. “And then, Cosmo showed me the marvelous Sword that he had hidden here.”
At last, with an appearance of confidence, she deigned to answer the one who taunted from the water. “Yes, Cosmo told me that sometimes he caught mermaids. He was a kindhearted man, and he wanted to do something for the poor creatures. So sometimes he took them in one of his magical nets, for purposes of experimentation. It was all for their benefit. Of course I never asked their names. As for the idea that he might have had affairs with them …” That was obviously too absurd to deserve denial.
“He had Black Pearl. And he was going to have me next, I tell you!” Soft Ripple shrieked, her voice almost unintelligible now. Her small pale hands were pounding water into foam.
“But he never did, did he? I’m sorry for you, my dear.”
“He had Black Pearl, and-and-”
Soft Ripple’s voice broke, then collapsed completely in grotesque hatred, jealousy, suffering, and rage. And then suddenly she was only a young girl, weeping, drifting almost inertly beside the boat.
Mark asked the Lady Megara: “If I may, my lady, go back to the Sword for a moment. Where did Cosmo first obtain it? Did he ever tell you that?”
“He told me, freely, that he traded with a mermaid for it. And he had begun to fear that some of the creatures were developing their-their own grotesque feelings for him. That they were making up fantasies. I only know that he never …”
Lady Megara talked on, and now it was the mermaid’s turn not to listen. Soft Ripple had fallen quite silent, gliding on her back, looking up expressionlessly at the sky. But still she swam beside the boats, as if secured to them by some invisible chain.
The woman in the boat continued speaking. “But my father grew suspicious. He must have followed me, secretly, that night. It may be that some of my magical powers were beginning to fade, because I was no longer a virgin.” The Lady Megara made the declaration proudly.
“He came upon us as we lay together. He stood over us, hand on the hilt of his sword, thundering judgment, consigning us to our fates. I, the faithless, treacherous daughter, was going to spend the rest of my life in a White Temple. As for Cosmo, the Malolo seducer, a hideous death awaited him.
“But for once the judge was not allowed to enforce his sentence. He turned his back on us, and I suppose he was about to call out to his men to come in. But as soon as he did so, Cosmo pulled the great and beautiful Sword out of its hiding place, and stabbed him through the back.
“I had risen to my knees, about to try to plead with my father. When I saw Cosmo strike him, I could neither speak nor move. My father never uttered a sound. He turned partway around, with the Sword still in him, and looked at me with a great and terrible surprise; it was as if he thought that I had been the one to strike him. And in a way I had.”
“Now, for once, I saw him as someone who could be hurt, someone who could need my help. He tried to speak again, but he could not.
“And then, a moment later, he fell dead.”
Lady Yambu said something, so low that Zoltan could not make it out. Still the oarsmen rowed stolidly, and the boats advanced.
“Cosmo must have tried to talk to me after that. But I was paralyzed in shock.
“Perhaps I said something to him then, something terrible that made him leave me and run away. I don’t remember. I don’t remember. All I know is that I loved him, and I love him still.”
Megara suddenly slumped over in her seat, swaying as if she might be on the brink of complete collapse. Yambu soothed her, stoically and almost silently, with memories in her own mind of some similar experience herself.
Eventually Megara raised her head and spoke again. “The next thing I remember is that my father’s men had rushed into the grotto, and were trying to revive me. His body still lay there on the couch, or just beside it. Someone had already pulled out the Sword that had killed him, and I suppose had already used it again. When the men saw that my father had been struck down by Farslayer, they naturally assumed that it had come magically into the grotto from a distance and that one of the Malolo must have thrown it. Of course none of them blamed Cosmo, or even thought of him, I suppose. If they ever thought of him at all, he was not considered dangerous.
“And so began our night of the great slaughter but I knew no more about it. I knew nothing else very clearly for about a month.”
Soft Ripple, abstracted now, continued to swim silently beside the boat.
And Bonar, riding in the other boat from Megara, confirmed how, on that night of terror, Cosmo had returned from one of his magical night outings, at about the time of the first (as the Malolo thought) Sword-death.
It had been a night of vile weather, of sleet and wind and snow. As a result, almost all members of both rival families had been gathered around their respective hearths.
There had been quite a number of eager, excitable young Malolo men on hand that night, the flower of the family youth. The same thing across the river. And the leaders on both sides had been killed quite early that night.
Cosmo on coming home that night had of course said nothing about his having been on Magicians’ Island, or about the patriarch of their enemies having died there at his hand.
But Bonar could say something now about his cousin having gone to that island frequently.
He added that, on that night, Cosmo had tried to get the others to interrupt the cycle of killing. But as usual no one had paid him much attention. Cosmo had been no more highly respected by his own family than he was by their enemies. He was looked on as a failed magician, who had not been very good at anything else, either. His pleas and warnings on the night of killing had been scorned and disregarded.
Then the Sword had struck again for what was to seem to others the last time that night coming in through the stone walls of the Malolo manor and killing someone.
This time Cosmo had been first on the scene and had drawn the weapon from the corpse. But instead of striking back in his turn, like a true Malolo, he had seized Farslayer and run out into the night with it.
Soon the remaining family members, few, bereaved, and bewildered, discovered that he’d reclaimed the mount he’d recently left in the stables, and galloped off, the gods knew where.
Before leaving he’d said something, a few words to a stablehand, that indicated he felt responsible for some reason for the slaughter that had now overtaken his own family.