excerpt of Sea Gifts

The sea brought gifts to the isle-witch: coral necklaces, shell flutes, glass roses. Once, it brought the bones of some great beast that she fit into a skeleton of sleek body and reptilian head, while a pod of curious dolphins visiting her cove looked on. They left the day Rhis finished, as though to spread the news.

He came to her soon after, king of the sea-realm, early to his power. She had been the same.

He wore the tatters of some drowned fool and no shoes. Still, she recognized him; he betrayed himself by his slow steps, the sand between his toes a newfound mystery. His gaze wondered at the clear light of the sun. But when his eyes rested on her, she knew she was nothing unknown to him.

"Isle-witch," he named her, and she set down the hopelessly tangled net she was trying to knot.

His voice was surprisingly mild. She didn't know what she recognized in him, but it sang to her as strongly as it had that night. His human shape was different than that of the shore folk who sometimes visited her for oracles: longer-limbed, paler-eyed.

"Here," she said.

She rose and led him to another part of the shore. He followed her wordlessly. There, carefully laid upon the sand, was the skeleton.

He crouched and touch a finger to the skull, tracing the crest above the eye. Then he stood again to face her.

"I've been seeking the remains of my sire."

She said, "I know."

He came closer to her. "I've been seeking the one who killed him."

"And that," she said, "he knows."

He reared away. "It wasn't you?"

"No. But I was there."

He studied her anew, as though she were now as foreign as the land above the water. She did not know if he could scent the truth in this salt-heavy air, but at last he said, "Tell me."

* * *

Her father had taken her out in a fisherman's boat. The craft didn't matter; it was her father's sorcery that led them through the water, out past where any fisherman would have dared gone. It was stormy, and the farther they went the more clearly she heard voices on the wind, but she was more afraid of her father than their journey.

The boat rocked to a stop just when she thought she couldn't stand it any longer. Then her father called back to the wind.

The wind answered. Then the sea. The boat rocked, despite the sorcery holding it steady. Rhis clung to the side and closed her eyes, and so missed the sight of the dragon-king rising out of the water.

Her father said, "I come to bargain."

The storm around them rumbled, "What have you to give me?"

She opened her eyes at her father's reply: "I will give you my daughter."

The dragon-king was silver-blue, like sunlight on water, and as elusive in his sinuous grace. For a moment, she forgot her fear.

"She's young," her father went on, "but she'll be powerful someday. I would promise that power to your bloodline. Give my child to yours, and you know there will be a king of the underwater realm as never before."

The dragon-king regarded her. She stared back at those opaline eyes. "Some would say that you presume."

"I know what you still hunger for, despite all your riches." Her father paused. "I have that hunger too."

"Ah," the dragon-king breathed. The water calmed. "What would ask for as her bride-price?"

"Open your kingdom to me. I would walk the sands beneath the waves, and witness the treasures only drowned men have. I would speak with your oldest subjects and hear their histories. And perhaps you would also permit me, from time to time, to see my daughter."

"I don't bring outsiders into my realm often," the dragon-king said. "And I never let them leave."

"What use is your knowledge if I cannot return to the land and make use of it?"

"You seek much, and yet your child is still young and her power undeveloped."

"You can raise her in your ways," her father said. "And if you can feel her power now, think of what it'll be once she's fledged."

"I cannot promise you passage from my kingdom," the dragon-king said, regretfully. "Once you were there, I wouldn't be able to let you go. You say you understand."

Her father bowed his head. "I do."

"How long until she is of age?" the dragon-king asked.

"Six years."

"Then for six years I will teach you. I will show you the shape of my power and answer your questions. I will bring your daughter to see you on occasion. Will this suffice?"

Her father was still for a moment. Then he gestured toward Rhis: Take her.

The dragon-king bent his head toward her. "Would you come?" he asked.

Rhis thought of treasures and histories, but these were no draw for her. Something else lured her nonetheless. "Yes."

"I must bind you to us by word and blood," he warned her.

She said again, "Yes."

The dragon-king sighed, then changed form.

A man was in the water, gripping the side of the boat. He pulled himself in. He wore his human skin comfortably.

"Your hand," he said to her, and she gave it to him.

"Your knife," he said to her father, and her father drew it from his belt.

The movement was swift. Rhis only heard the cry of the dragon-king, warping into a roar as he threw himself back into his original form. It was too late, though; the spray on her face was warm now: blood. The boat began to buck wildly under the weight of the dragon-king's thrashing body and the sea that echoed its lord's movements.

She screamed, but even so she could hear her father's voice: "Through blood I bind your power to me..."

Something lashed her out of the boat. She flailed, searching for a grip on anything; her hands scraped on scales. Because his struggles had weakened enough that she could hold on, she knew that the dragon-king was dying.

She made her decision as easily and inexplicably as she had when she agreed to trade herself: she opened her hands and let the sea take her where it would.


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