It’s still Tuesday nightish! Nobody will be surprised to find that it ran long and I was wrestling it into shape. My dears, I wrote the start of this story when I was having a tough time writing anything, and it reminded me I love writing, and I continued because I love y’all. Thank you for coming on this (WAY LONGER THAN YOU EXPECTED) adventure with me.
The medic Elka Pathwind, who had once been Elka Schafer and his mother, looked at him for a long moment. She had brown eyes, dark as pansies: they were nothing like his.
“I know who you are,” she said slowly. “I guess you want to talk to me more than ever. I can spare a while. I suppose I owe you that.”
They could not just stay here, where anyone could walk by and interrupt them. Elliot began to walk toward the edge of the camp, where the fence ran. He leaned against the fence, his boots in the dirt: leaning he was closer to her height. She was tall for a woman, but shorter than him, shorter than Serene. Her passionless pale face was level with his now.
“Are you angry with me?” she asked. She sounded almost curious.
“No,” Elliot blurted out, instinctive as crying out when hit.
“Good,” she said. “I did the best thing for you, I think, leaving you with your father. He was always—very devoted.”
“He was very devoted to you,” Elliot snapped. “It doesn’t transfer.”
He meant love: that love could not be handed from hand to hand like a parcel, that what had been gold from his father in her hand had turned to ashes in his. He could not say the word love, though, not with her looking at him.
She surveyed him. “Was he cruel to you, then? You look perfectly all right.”
“I am all right,” Elliot muttered.
“Just having a tantrum, then?”
Elliot lifted his chin, so he was a little taller than her. “Was he cruel to you?” he asked, in return. “There are a lot of reasons for a woman to leave. I read about them. You were—you were pretty young.”
He’d prepared a lot of things to say to her: that he didn’t blame her, that he forgave her. None of them seemed right, now.
“There were a lot of reasons to stay,” she said. “Have you ever thought, when you’re done here, that you will have no qualifications in the other world? The world did not stop turning when you turned thirteen. It will have left you far behind.”
“I’ve thought about it,” said Elliot.
“Hm,” said this strange woman. “In the other world, there were two choices for me: I could be his wife. Or I could live in penury and, if I tried to tell the world the truth about where I’d been, be called mad. So I was his wife. He always tried to be good to me, I think. But in this world, I don’t need him. I don’t need anybody. So I came back. The wall we come over, I cut my old name on it with all the other names from the otherlands, and I walked away.”
I carved it on the wall and left it behind, Bat Masterson had said. His mother had left behind more than her name.
“You became a medic,” Elliot said slowly. “You don’t become a medic if you don’t—care about people.”
She shot him an annoyed look. Elliot almost found it comforting, the sign of the cranky medic he’d liked, rather than the distant stranger he’d been speaking to here at the edge of the world.
Then she sighed, and the crease between her eyebrows smoothed as if the sigh had unfolded the skin.
“Do you want me to talk about why I became a medic?” she asked, eventually. “I will. Do you want me to talk about why I left your father, whether I considered taking you with me? Ask me what you want to know, and I’ll tell you. Like I said… I suppose I owe you.”
Elliot had thought out different reasons she might have had for leaving. He would not hate her, even if she said that she had not considered taking him with her. She hadn’t had a job then, or any money: she might have thought leaving him would comfort his father. She might have been depressed after having him, confused at her lack of maternal feeling. The way his father had loved her was not the way people should be loved. Usually women didn’t have a whole other world to run to, but she had.
He had thought out so many reasons.
“Do you have anything,” Elliot said, very slowly, “to ask me?”
“What, ask for your forgiveness?” she demanded, crossing her arms over her chest. “No.”
“I am not the one who brought up owing, or forgiveness,” said Elliot, his voice very smooth. “Is it on your mind?”
She looked like she wanted to slap him. He wished she would.
“I didn’t mean anything like that,” Elliot said, after a moment. “I mean, do you want to know how I am? Or how my father is? Or do you want to know about what I like? What I want to do when I grow up? Do you want to know who I am or who I love?”
“I know who your friends are, remember?” the medic retorted. “Everybody knows that. The elf girl and the gay Sunborn kid.”
Elliot’s eyes narrowed. “There is a lot more to Serene than just being an elf. And there’s a hell of a lot more to Luke than being gay, like that’s what makes him remarkable among the Sunborns. He happens to be their champion. Though,” he added quickly, “all value systems based on physical strength and martial prowess are meaningless!”
Elka Pathwind looked at him, her head tilted but her eyes still wide, her expression neutral. “The commander sometimes talks about you. She said you were crazy.”
Elliot hesitated. “Well… do you want to know if I am?”
His mother shook her head. “Why are you so eager for me to ask you questions?”
Because in every scenario he’d ever thought through, every time he had waited on the stairs of his house in the terrible silence, she had come back. She had taken steps toward him, every step from wherever she’d been to where he was. He hadn’t stumbled painfully over her. He had known, in his imagination, whatever she did or whatever she said to him, whatever her reasons for going, that she had come back.
This was different. She had not come to him. He had no reason to think she had any interest in him. She had to give him a reason.
“Because I want to know… if you care to know anything about me.”
“Not really,” said the medic at last, with a shrug. “You’re no concern of mine.”
It was almost evening, the sun drowning in the clouds. It was later than he had thought.
“Okay,” said Elliot, after a pause. It was a longer pause than he would have liked. He wished he’d been able to speak sooner. “Then I think we’re done here. I just—I wanted to be sure of where we both stood. Now I am.”
She gave him one last look, assessing and coming to a decision. There was a certain easing of her expression that Elliot thought might be relief. Then she nodded.
“I guess this could have gone worse,” she told him, and walked away.
Elliot supposed she was right. It could have gone worse. He could have tried to have a relationship with her, ignored all the signs and blundered stupidly and hopefully on. He could have had her spell her indifference out for him even more clearly.
Elliot stood leaning against the fence for some time: the first place he had learned about magic, met Serene and Luke, chosen to stay. He had believed in a lot of stories, back then, including the ones he told himself.
He was sure his mother had a story: that there was more to why she had left, why she had come back here, why she had chosen the job she had, why she thought the way she did about the world. He was not going to hear about it, though. They were not going to have the bond of shared stories and joined lives: she was not going to listen.
“Hey,” said Luke after some dark indeterminate length of time, wandering up to him.
“I can’t do this right now,” Elliot snarled at him.
Luke stared. “Well, nice to see you too.”
Elliot didn’t want to be cruel, he thought suddenly. This was the moment to tell everything, if there had ever been such a moment, when all his defences were burned down. He had to say it: I just found my mother, and it turns out that what I always feared is absolutely true. Neither of them ever wanted me at all, not for a second. I have been unwanted for my whole life. By the way, I like guys as well as girls, so I’d appreciate it if you’d quit implying I hit on everyone because your implication has some pretty unfortunate implications.
It would be a miracle if he could get all that out, but after that he thought he could manage to say: Take me to Serene, and maybe: I think I’m going to cry.
“I didn’t mean that the way it sounded,” he said, and tried to work out how to say everything else.
“It’s hard sometimes, with my family,” said Luke into the silence.
“Oh,” Elliot said, his voice brittle. “Is it?”
“Being just ordinary, I mean, when they’re all… you know.”
That was literally the most ridiculous thing Elliot had ever heard. He did not know what had possessed Luke to come over and start talking random absurdities at one of the most horrible times of Elliot’s life, but apparently Elliot had to cope with this. He felt like a burn victim, having someone come at him with a grater.
Elliot badly wanted to snap at him, but he did not dare. If he let himself lose his temper, it was going to be ugly: he was going to do or say something terrible. He did not even know what poison he might spill, but he knew that Luke did not know anything. Luke did not deserve it.
“I seem to recall some sort of championship,” said Elliot, his voice astonishingly calm in his own ears. “That is what not being hit in the head multiple times does for me. I have this astonishing recall of past events.”
“Yeah, but that was a misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding of what? By whom?”
“Doesn’t matter. Look, my mother wanted me to ask you if you wanted to have din—”
And the easy, casual way Luke could say ‘my mother,’ the way he could complain about her, left Elliot suddenly with no reserves of patience in him.
“I don’t need any more Sunborn time, no,” he told Luke. “I want to go to the library where perhaps I will finally be left in peace.”
“Suit yourself, then,” said Luke. “You always do.”
“Oh, you know me,” said Elliot, more savagely than he’d meant to. “Constantly getting what I want.”
Elliot did not go to the library or his room, since Serene might be in either place, and Serene would take Luke’s side. He went to the commander’s tower, and since it was more crowded there than usual he went right up to the very top.
He could see the Borderlands laid out from here, blue and green that went blurred in his vision suddenly, like a turquoise gemstone, like something he wanted to hurl away. He didn’t want magic any more, he didn’t want any of it.
Elliot sat down on the stone, put his forehead on his drawn-up knee, cradled his head in his arm, and tried to breathe in wet angry gulps.
“Are you… quite all right, Cadet Schafer?”
It was Commander Woodsinger’s voice, Elliot realized after a moment. Though he should have guessed it immediately from the fact there were no soothing back-pats or offers to fetch help. He looked up, blinking, and she was looking down at him. Her face was grave as it always was.
“No,” said Elliot. “I’m not. That medic, Elka Pathwind? She’s my mother. She left me when I was a baby and she doesn’t want me now. She looked at me as if I was some years-old mess that she’d thought was behind her, something rotting and useless and—and hateful, and I do not know what to do except maybe prove her right. I’m not—I don’t know how to be—I’m planning on being emotional and too much trouble and everything you hate, so why don’t you just go? Go! Get out!”
He put his head back down on his arm. He wondered if he would be expelled for telling the commander to get out of her own tower, and sort of hoped he would be. He kept trying to breathe, to breathe, until it finally seemed like breathing might be possible.
It occurred to him that he had heard himself gasping and heard the thunder of his own useless furious heart in his ears, but he had not heard her leave.
Then the commander spoke. “Do you want me to send her away?”
Elliot twisted around and stared at the commander. She was standing straight as a spear, staring out at the Borderlands: her profile was set as something carved on a coin.
“What?” Elliot asked blankly.
“I haven’t been stricken deaf so I can’t hear stuff said to me by someone standing next to me on top of a tower with nobody else around,” said Elliot. “I was just expressing disbelief. Why would you send her away?”
Commander Woodsinger cleared her throat. “Well—”
Elliot stared up at her. It was easier to breathe, the more uneasy the commander was.
“I mean she’s a perfectly competent medic. Useful to have around the place. Isn’t that what you care about? Your job and the camp?”
“Obviously,” said Commander Woodsinger.
“After all, you don’t want to have a personal relationship with any of your cadets,” Elliot pointed out. “You told me that.”
“It is possible that I believe you might—might—have the potential to be even more useful than a capable medic,” said Commander Woodsinger. “In time. If you listen to your tutors and especially your commanding officer. Now vacate the tower: you do not have my permission to be here.”
Elliot scrambled up, rolled his eyes at her and made for the door.
“Wait, Cadet Schafer!” Elliot turned and waited: Commander Woodsinger looked him over, then looked as if she wanted to say something. Her mouth formed a few different, undecided steps. Eventually, she said: “You always forget to salute.”
Elliot hesitated. Then he took the few steps hastily back to her, leaned down and kissed her on the cheek.
“It’s okay,” said Elliot. “You don’t have to tell me that you like me.”
He took a step back, saluted and left, taking the tower steps two at a time.
She didn’t have to tell him, because he could tell. That was what it meant, when people came to find you, when they cared enough to sacrifice for you, when they supported you, when they came back.
He could tell when someone cared. And he could tell when someone didn’t.
The next night there was a celebration for the agreement between the Border camp and the elves, and their current ride to war.
Elliot was not in a party mood, but fortunately his friends were basically terrible at parties. Serene preferred to brood handsomely in a corner, impressing many gentlemen but not really speaking to anyone, and Luke sat being pleasant but twitchy, like an unhappy rabbit, until he could make his escape.
Unfortunately, the place was full of Sunborns. They were all treated to the sight of Rachel Sunborn grinding up on a distant cousin called, Elliot thought, Ursula Sunborn. It cheered him up a little, as did Luke’s expression, which said, in letters of fire: O Welcome Death.
“Where are your delightful relatives, Serene?” Elliot asked.
“They decided not to come because they were certain they would be exposed to the sight of gentlemen behaving in a licentious and ungentlemanly fashion,” said Serene, with deep thankfulness.
Elliot looked around where many gentlemen were indeed behaving in a licentious and ungentlemanly fashion, getting super drunk and in the case of five members of the Trigon team standing around cheering as Adara Cornripe and Natalie Lowlands made out for their benefit.
Elliot let his lip curl. “Charming. They certainly are missing out,” he said dryly.
Said dryness was spoiled when Louise Sunborn spilled half her mead on his head. Elliot sputtered and stared up at her.
“Sorry, Little Red!” she said, and then burst out laughing. “You are hilarious when you make faces! Come and show me some of the moves from your play.”
Elliot got up. He did it for Louise, who was drunk and wanted to have fun, but having her arms around his neck, looking at her simply beautiful and simply happy face, actually made him feel a little better. He made the stage dance easier so she could follow a few of the more showy moves, and Louise clapped as he shimmied up her body and laughed delightedly when she dipped him. He was concerned he was going to be dropped, but the Sunborn musculature saved him and she didn’t.
“Ha, you are such a cutie,” she said, flinging her arms back around his neck and whispering in a very loud voice. “Hey, Mum said something interesting to me. So I hear little Luke has a crussssssh! At last. Thank God. I mean he’s a late bloomer, I’m not meant to tease him, but it was getting strange. So point out this Dale Wavechaser to me, or I’ll ask Dad to do it! Oh no wait, Dad said I was meant to say I’d ask Luke… and I wasn’t supposed to say Dad told as well… This is just a terrible mess, Little Red. Show me my baby brother’s little crush or I’ll beat you up. But gently.” She patted his head.
“You have to promise not to tell Luke,” said Elliot.
“I will be the soul of discussion,” Louise promised, her finger to her lips. “Or maybe I mean a different word!”
Elliot sighed and jerked his head in Dale’s direction. He was actually standing near Luke, which Elliot thought was progress, even though Luke was studiously avoiding his eye and talking to Serene.
“Oh, hello, not bad.” Louise whistled. “Thanks for pointing him out, this way I won’t try to sleep with him.”
“He prefers men,” said Elliot.
“Sure,” Louise said patiently. “But he hasn’t met me yet. Anyway, doesn’t matter, because I was hoping to make like Cousin Gregory and bag an elf tonight. Someone told me that Cold brought his beautiful young sons and is keeping ‘em cloistered! What can I say, I like a challenge.”
“Do you speak elvish?” Elliot inquired.
“Um… no,” Louise said. “I don’t like books and learning, and I don’t need to bother with them, because: look at all this.” Louise gestured haphazardly to herself, all gleaming curls and generous curves, her scar stretching as she smiled. “Men look at it, and then they find a way to talk to me. You doubt it?”
“Um…” said Elliot, and spun her and caught her, and they both laughed. “No.”
“Please don’t sleep with my sister,” Luke blurted out.
“Wow, do you think she’d go for it?” asked Elliot, winking at Serene, who shook her head at him in a severe fashion. “I mean, no way I could ever get that lucky, am I right? But if you really think I have a shot, I guess I could make a pass…”
Louise was ten thousand miles out of Elliot’s league and even if she would ever be willing to consider it, it would probably be too weird, but it was hilarious that Luke had managed to come up with this one. Elliot was trying to think of a way to milk it further when he followed the new direction of Luke’s scowl to Adara.
“Hey, Elliot,” she said, pushing her bright locks off her forehead, where they stuck as if she had been sweating. “Do you want to dance?”
“Sure,” said Elliot, and took her outstretched hand so he could spin her out onto the dance floor. He could not resist saying, with just a touch of malice: “I thought you were having fun where you were.”
Adara did not look him in the eyes, which was impressive considering they were dancing close and she was a tall girl.
“Mission accomplished,” she said, jerking her chin in the direction of the corner of the tent, where Natalie was making out with the sporty type with sticking-out teeth. “She’s having fun with him now,” said Adara breathlessly. “And I’m—I’m having fun with you. Aren’t I? And we could have more fun later.”
Elliot was about to snap at her when he noticed the slightly choked way Adara was speaking, as if she had misery stuck in her throat, and he thought of the way Adara had reacted when he’d told her about him, the way she’d spoken to Natalie, and the fact Adara had told him she liked someone else. He felt lousy, suddenly, for being angry at her, for thinking she was performing when she was just like him.
“We’re having fun,” Elliot said gently. “But we’re not doing anything later.”
“Why not? Isn’t it enough to just have fun?” Adara asked.
She had to swallow a few times, before she got the words out. She was even more upset than Elliot had thought. Elliot gathered her closer into his arms, made sure her face was hidden against his collar.
“Not when the person I’m with isn’t having fun. Not when it’s not clean—for fun, or for love, or because there is potential there for one thing to move to the other. And not when the person I’m with wants to be with somebody else more,” said Elliot, into her hair. “Never again.”
They danced, turning in slow circles. Elliot could see Serene turning her head to talk to Luke, the curve of her neck and the curve of her smile. Elliot could see Myra and Peter dancing together. Peter’s face was alight and Myra’s was not.
He danced with Adara until the song was over, at which point he left her: another boy was very willing to scoop her up in his arms.
“Didn’t expect to see you back,” said Luke.
“I must say considering what Luke has told me that I am surprised as well,” said Serene.
“Thought she was going to make a spectacle of herself again,” said Luke. “Some more.”
The slightly snide tone of voice he was using reminded Elliot of the way he himself had been thinking about Adara, before he’d danced with her. He felt the back of his neck prickle with a combination of annoyance and guilt.
“I don’t think anything she or I do is any of your business,” said Elliot. “Nobody is interested in your opinion. So keep it to yourself.”
He got up and made his way across the dance floor, to the other side of the tent, where Gregory Sunborn was sitting. He was quite alone but looked entirely satisfied with his situation, as he did at all times, and Elliot thought of the saying ‘the cat that got the cream’ and also of the way he’d thought of Gregory as a silver lion.
“Hi,” said Elliot, and went over to sit by him.
“Oh, hello,” said Gregory. “Luke’s friend. Young Louise calls you… Little Red, doesn’t she?”
“I’m Elliot, but whatever. You know a lot about people, don’t you?”
Elliot was not making random judgements based on Gregory’s former profession as a famed courtesan for the elves. He had noticed that Gregory was among the few humans who could calm both angry elves and rampaging Sunborns and the general, and that Gregory himself seldom, if ever, lost his temper. If Gregory had actually seemed to care about treaties at all, he would have been an ideal ally.
Gregory smiled. “They’re my specialty.”
“Terrific,” said Elliot. “So if someone gave every sign of not wanting anything to do with you—if they left you, and didn’t approach you again, and said they weren’t interested in you—then they don’t care about you, right? And you should leave them alone.”
Gregory blinked. “I was hoping for something a little more challenging. Yes, you should leave them alone.”
“Okay,” said Elliot. “That’s what I thought.”
There was quiet between them that the music flowed through, like a river. Gregory tilted his head, as if appreciating the song.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean they do not care about you,” said Gregory. “But it might. Eventually, you have to stop waiting for people. If they care about you, they’ll find you when they can: they will show you. And if they don’t… after a certain amount of time and effort, isn’t it wasted energy? All light burns out. Best put yours where people will appreciate it and be helped by it, and make it last longer.” He paused. “Very unprofitable use of your time, and I mean that both figuratively and absolutely literally.”
“Yes, all right,” said Elliot. “I understand. Thank you for your wisdom. Please, please do not get any more literal.”
“You’re welcome for my wisdom. Which reminds me of a small favour I’d like you to do me. We’re all very concerned about young Luke,” said Gregory. “And a little birdie might have told me a little something about someone called Dale Wavechaser. Could you be a darling and point him out for me, or should I ask Luke which one he is?”
Elliot groaned and hid his face in his hands. “You Sunborns are not subtle. And if you go on being unsubtle, Luke is going to find out, and then he is going to kill me!”
“Interesting, Little Red,” said Gregory Sunborn. “So which one is—”
“That one,” said Elliot, gesturing dramatically.
Dale waved innocently back as he danced past.
“Oh, quite pretty,” said Gregory, eyeing Dale with the air of a connoisseur.
Elliot put his head back in his hands, and thumped his forehead against his palm. “I’m so dead.”
The party was not cheering, in the end, but good news came in the morning. Apparently the small slice of bandit territory they had managed to reclaim—and Elliot noticed, immediately resettle with humans—was being assailed by murderous mermaids.
Elliot was overjoyed.
“I promised I would never come on a military foray without your express permission,” Elliot said virtuously. “And I never will. Can I have your permission to go see the mermaids, please and thank you?”
“I don’t think you understand what the words ‘direct order’ or ‘ask permission’ mean,” said Commander Woodsinger as she readied her own pack for the expedition. “Or ‘military protocol’ or ‘chain of command.’ Some of your tutors say you’re rather bright, so I’m not sure what the problem is.”
“You’re so right,” said Elliot, sidling into the commander’s tent. “I have to give you a reason why I would be a valuable asset on the mission! I think I can speak to mermaids.”
Commander Woodsinger looked around her bare room for patience. “And if you thought you could speak to the little bluebells by the side of the road, should I take you on every forest mission?”
“I mean I’ve been researching mermaids in depth, and due to that research, I am sixty-eight per cent certain I can converse with mermaids, and thus perhaps resolve this matter without bloodshed!” Elliot looked at the commander’s expression. “Seventy-two per cent certain.”
“Cadet Schafer, how would you describe your conversational style?”
“Er…” said Elliot, and grinned. “Drive it like I stole it.”
“I am simply wondering where your misplaced confidence in your own ability to have charming and all-resolving discussions comes from.”
“Fair point,” said Elliot. “But is there anyone else with an even forty per cent certainty they can talk with mermaids in the Border camp?”
Commander Woodsinger paused. Elliot was ninety-five per cent certain she was counting in her head, or possibly praying.
“Fine,” the commander said at length. “But this is going to be under controlled circumstances, with the entire array of armed forces at your back.”
“Thank you so much for your permission, commander, you know I would never leave camp without it,” said Elliot.
All that other stuff seemed like more of a suggestion to him. He was sure the mermaids would not feel like chatting when faced by hostile forces.
He kept that to himself until they sailed—the first time Elliot had ever been on the sea—to the village in the nearby bay. They were welcomed by the villagers, who seemed settled into their new home already and who seemed to be under the impression they had come to slaughter all the mermaids.
The villagers held a mermaid slaughtering party, of which Elliot approved very much. It gave him the chance to work under the cover of darkness and noise.
He made his way over to Luke, who was explaining to several raptly disappointed young ladies that he did not and would not dance.
“Hi loser, I want you,” said Elliot.
“Oh God what now,” said Luke, and Elliot beamed.
“I’m going to do something very dangerous,” said Elliot. “And I need you to hold the rope.”
The lake by the village was vast, so big Elliot wondered if he should think of it as a lagoon. There were three large named rivers that fed into it: Scimiar, the largest, the one that ran out to sea, was so wide and calm it looked like a road. He could see the shine of tiny rivers running beneath the undergrowth all around, like the faintest threads of silver embroidery running through swathes of dark fabric, all of them feeding it. There were woods all around, trees so thick and tall harpies could have nested in their boughs, and yet the trees only seemed like a midnight-black fringe on the edge of all that water. The moon was full, shining so bright it seemed to have suffused the whole sky with a faint silver glow.
Under the full moon, between silver and dark, the mermaids’ lagoon waited. The water was shockingly cold as Elliot waded in, so cold that the first touch of lake water around his ankles made his teeth clench. He kept walking, and ripples chased each other before him and behind him, one ripple silver and one dark, tiny waves that created rings around him.
Silver and dark, silver and dark, moon bright and night dark, the rings formed. He felt stones and earth and slime beneath his feet, weeds tangling around his legs, as he walked. He was up past his chest and standing in a dark ring when the soft brush of another weed, gently unfurling against his leg, clutched instead and formed a grip cold and fast as steel.
Elliot was only able to get out one shout before he disappeared beneath the surface, and he knew the mermaid did not intend for him to break the surface and give another.
The scream had lost him his air: he felt another gasp escape him and saw it rise, a bright silver bubble among green weeds. Below the surface the water still looked silver, but it was a shadowed silver, almost pewter, and in the dull silver world Elliot glimpsed among the weeds a white face and sharp teeth.
Then she was on him, fast as a shark, terrible and defying all stories like the unicorn. She had him pinned to the stones at the bottom of the lake, her hands stone-cold and twining-strong. Elliot fought the urge to struggle and lash out: he used his last moments of strength and air to gesture to her, the gesture so many of the mermaids were making in so many of Maximilian Wavechaser’s sketches.
The mermaid hesitated. He thought, he was almost sure she did, and then the rope around his waist tautened and dragged him inexorably across the stones and out of her reach.
Elliot broke the surface of the water gasping and choking, but he called out in a breaking water-logged voice to both Luke and the mermaid: “Stop. Wait.”
“Are you kidding me?” Luke snapped, his voice traveling across the water from the trees with great clarity and greater annoyance. “I did what you wanted. We came out, you got half drowned. Now you want to stay here and get all the way drowned? The mermaids don’t want to talk! The mermaids want to drown you!”
Elliot waved him off and, disinclined though he felt to do it, ducked his head beneath the water again. The mermaid had not gone. She was under the water, lurking, her weed-green pale eyes watchful. Her eyes widened at being watched back. Elliot made the gesture again, then had to break the surface of the water and breathe.
He was drawing another gulp of air into his smarting throat and burning lungs when he saw something else break the surface of the water. At first it only looked like a nest of debris, a tangle of weeds, but then it rose, and he saw bared to the open air her bone-pale face, her water-cool eyes, her rows of glittering sharp teeth. The mermaid.
In a voice that was soft but sounded jagged, like something broken and made into a new shape it was never meant to form, she spoke. “Human,” she said. “Do you know what you were saying?”
“This?” Elliot made the gesture again. “Mermaids were—doing that, with their hands, in a lot of the sketches with mermaids in that I could find. I figured it was something that people say to each other all the time—like hello or goodbye or how are you.”
“It means,” she said, and her voice was almost dry, “ ‘Do you want to drown him or shall I?’ Except less polite than that.”
“Oh,” said Elliot, and laughed. “Of course. It’s something that you say to each other all the time, when in the presence of humans. Oh my God. Like a million scholarly works on mermaids are full of pictures of mermaids giving humans the finger. Well. The finger of death.”
“Your friend on the shore is right,” the mermaid whispered, and then she was on him again. He was flat on his back in the water, her cold merciless weight on top of him, and her strangling-tight fingers were in his hair, pulling him down under the surface as she murmured in his ear: “Your kind can drown in an inch of water. You think I can’t kill you because of a rope?”
The harpoon landed in the water, inches away from them. The mermaid stiffened: Elliot put a hand around her arm.
“Wait,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt you. I only want to talk.”
“But harm him and I will hurt you,” Serene’s voice called from the trees.
The mermaid’s head turned, the moon picking out silver in the dark drowned green of her hair. “Elf!”
“Yes, elf,” said Serene. “Serene-Heart-in-the-Chaos-of-Battle. And that should tell you that I missed you on purpose. Try to harm my friend again, and I will not miss.”
The mermaid’s head swung from side to side. She was poised, to run or to attack. Elliot did not think she could see very well, outside the water.
“Don’t go,” Elliot said urgently. “She won’t hurt you unless you drown me.”
“You think I can’t? You’re in my element. You think you’re safe?”
“Not completely,” said Elliot. “But I thought it was worth a little risk. Don’t go and don’t drown me. Aren’t you the least bit curious about what I have to say? I’m curious about you.”
The mermaid shrugged. “We had to do it,” she said. “We had to get those people away from our lake. We have eggs to be raised here, and they have been fouling it for the space of fifteen moons.”
“But… then those people who were fouling your lake, they were bandits,” said Elliot rapidly. “Not villagers interested in farming and trade. The bandits weren’t planning to stay, so they could leave as much of a mess as they wanted, but these people won’t. Didn’t you notice they were different?”
“You all look the same to me.”
Elliot smiled and said, “That’s because you’re not looking closely enough.”
They looked, and spoke, all night long. She seemed interested, Elliot thought, as she held her hand up against his. Her fingers were cool against his, and webbed at the bases.
“I haven’t seen a human before,” the mermaid confided to him. “Not for long. Once they are drowned, your kind’s skin turns to—I think your word is–soap in the water.”
She laughed and Elliot laughed back, marveling, though he could hear Luke on the bank muttering that he did not think it was funny.
“That’s so true,” he told the mermaid.
He only wanted to look at her, and see her looking at him. Her skin felt different than human skin, looked different: her very eyes looked different, lucent in her skull. Those are pearls that were her eyes, Elliot thought, but her eyes had been pearls all along. She was a story made flesh.
“You keep turning up your mouth at the corners.”
“That’s a smile,” said Elliot. “My kind do it before laughing, sometimes. Do your kind not do it?”
“No. My kind just laugh, and sing, and…” The mermaid looked at him, wondrous and wondering, and then leaned forward. Elliot felt a shock like a cold ripple in the water, as he felt her cool mouth on his, felt the press of her sharp teeth beneath her flesh. She leaned away. “Do your kind do this?”
Elliot could not help laughing. “Yes. My kind do.”
“I don’t believe this!” Luke yelled.
“I can’t believe you’re so annoying! Sorry about him,” Elliot told the mermaid. “So can I tell the villagers we have a deal?”
“Are you sorry to be parted from the mermaid?” Serene asked sympathetically. “I know you listen to my and Luke’s romantic troubles, and I would be hap—”
“About that, I don’t want to listen to those, please stop.”
Since she returned Serene had been talking nonstop about Golden not refusing her permission to write to him while she was at the wars. Which meant that Serene had permission. Except that Golden never wrote back, unless you counted the letter of Serene’s Golden had returned with DRIVEL written over it in violet ink.
Elliot had been forced through their sheer insistence on yapping about it to read one of Serene’s epistles, which were 100% about her valor. He had dictated a letter asking Golden about her hobbies and interests: so far no luck, but it had to be less boring for the poor boy.
Elliot sighed and stared out at the sea. “Not exactly sorry. A bird might love a fish, but where would they live? Not to mention the other anatomical difficulties…”
Serene looked sad about having a gentleman discussing intimate details, wandeing off to persuade the captain to let her steer.
Luke jumped out of the rigging and landed on the deck near Elliot.
“Nobody should’ve been able to make that jump without breaking a leg,” said a sailor. “That’s absurd.”
“I know!” said Elliot. “I know, right? I’ve been saying it for years. Be my best friend.”
The sailor’s eyes glowed. “He’s amazing.”
“Get away from me, never speak to me again,” said Elliot, and moved to what he thought was starboard.
“I’m sorry about him,” said Luke behind him. “He’s always been like this. It’s terrible.”
Elliot wondered if he felt ill because of this, or the way the boat was lurching in the rising wind. The boat actually seemed to be skipping like an expertly thrown stone from one crest of a wave to the other, and as it lurched again Elliot made a grab for the rail, and missed.
Everything fell away. Someone shouted out his name, and that was the last thing he heard over the roar of waves and wind, like gods having a shouting match.
Then he was in the dark, dark water, choking, flailing, as if he could fight the waves, and in the darkness there were pearls. Mermaids’ faces, Elliot thought, and felt their strong cold hands fasten onto him. Till human voices wake us, Elliot remembered, and we drown…
“Elliot?” Luke asked, and Elliot found himself not drowning with two very worried faces hovering over him.
“Speak to us!” Serene commanded.
Elliot coughed and said: “I told you so.”
Luke laughed a little wildly and looked up into the black sky, hands spread palms up, as if asking the stormclouds why they had visited this horror upon him.
Elliot lay on the deck and said: “I told you that mermaid liked me.”
Almost as soon as they were back from seeing the mermaids, Luke and Serene were sent off to war with the bandits. Only the best war training students were chosen… which was always going to be Luke and Serene.
Elliot thought about that: about being left behind all his life. He knew he should be. He knew he’d be useless in a battle, but he hated sitting here and thinking about it. And he knew that even if this war was won, another war would start between the humans and the elves. Maybe not this year, not with the treaty in place, but in five years, or ten years.
Life was not like this in the other world, he thought. And he had seen mermaids, now.
“Hey,” said Dale, passing by. “Want to go for a swim in the lake?”
Elliot had not been to the lake since he was fourteen, with Serene, but Serene wasn’t here any more. “Why not?”
He was right to do it, he thought as he plunged into the clear spring water. He felt it envelop him, a shivering delightful rush over his bare chest and through his hair. He opened his eyes and the world was pale and shining, and he emerged from the water grinning and met a kiss.
Dale body was lithe and slippery against his, his kiss was cool and sweet, and Elliot pressed him up against a tree. Then a flash of memory and horror burned through Elliot and he jumped back as if Dale was the one burning.
“I should not have done that! I am the worst person in the world!”
“Um,” Dale said. “Why?”
“Because of Luke!”
“What?” Dale asked. “Oh my God. You are the worst person in the world! When did you guys get together?”
“What—no. He likes you,” said Elliot, and ran his fingers through his wet hair. “And now I’ve officially told everybody.”
He’d told, and he’d kissed Dale, and he’d let Luke down, and he was letting Luke down again because the sneaking thought crept in: if Dale really did like Elliot better…
Elliot lifted his head, but Dale was glowing.
“Wow,” he said. “Luke Sunborn.” He caught himself, politely. “I mean, I think you’re great, and I like all the flirting—”
“I have not—” Elliot began furiously, and stopped. “I see why you might think that.”
“But wow. Luke Sunborn. You know?”
“I guess,” Elliot conceded ungraciously. “I mostly sublimate it.”
He might have thought: wow, Luke Sunborn, occasionally, but most of the time he knew he did not want his heart broken by the other best friend, and even if Luke had some sort of break with reality and wanted it, Elliot did not want a partner who thought everything Elliot cared about was unimportant.
“Oh. But he likes me, so I don’t have to sublinear it.”
Elliot opened his mouth and then shut it, in mercy.
“Just play it cool. He’s going to ask you out eventually. And don’t worry about this. I think water might be my lucky element,” Elliot grinned. “The last person I kissed was a mermaid.”
“Really?” Dale’s face screwed up. “Gross.”
Elliot drew in a deep breath to yell at him, then let it out. Dale and Luke were going to be together, and Elliot wanted to remain on good terms. He put it down to yet another reason why Elliot and Dale would not work together, including ‘sublinear.’
Then the sound of an elvish horn sang through the trees.
Elliot froze. “Get back to camp, I’ll stall them,” he said, and ran for the road that wound through the trees and into a melee of horses.
Apparently tired warhorses reacted badly to people stumbling into their midst and flailing wildly.
“Nice horsie,” Elliot called, and when the horse reared: “Well, that’s not very nice.”
Luke jumped off the rearing horse with his usual attention to gravity, and calmed it with a pat to its straining neck. More equine favoritism.
“I didn’t mean for that to happen,” said Elliot, giving Serene a quick wave. “I just wanted—um, a word with you?”
“You can speak when we get back to camp,” Commander Woodsinger said from high atop a glossy, sidling beast.
“Can’t we have one now? Please,” said Luke, and the commander shrugged, still looking loftily down.
“Congratulate us, Cadet,” said Commander Woodsinger. “War’s over.”
Elliot frowned. “For now.”
“If it starts again, I’m sure that you will be certain you can talk your way out of it,” the commander told him.
“He will not be the only one confident in his abilities,” said Serene, and Elliot beamed at her, even as the commander motioned the troop forward and home.
“So what did you want to ask me about?” Luke said.
Elliot stared. “Um… I forget.”
“You’re impossible,” said Luke, storming off with his horse in tow.
Elliot was glad Luke was angry with him, for once: Elliot deserved it. But he could not help thinking of how many secrets Elliot was keeping from Luke right now, in an attempt to make things easier between them. Except everything had become more difficult, and more distant, and it was not like it had ever been easy.
They were all in Elliot’s cabin for the ten thousandth time talking about their love lives. Serene and Luke were, that was. Elliot was reading a book.
“I cannot quite describe the lucent quality of his golden hair,” said Serene. “But I did write a poem about it. It’s not very good.”
“I like, uh, his muscles,” said Luke, blushing. “And his tan. He’s getting a lot better at Trigon, too.”
“If only his heart was not as cold as he is fair,” said Serene, waving her letter. “He returned my own letter to me again, I can feel it rustling in the envelope! I don’t want to know what he’s written on it.”
She was apparently lying, because she immediately opened it, and then stared.
“Elliot,” she whispered, and Elliot looked up from his troll history. “That letter you told me to write—Golden, he wrote back! He wrote me a letter!”
Elliot glanced at the page. “I’m not sure ‘That’s more like it,’ counts as a letter.”
Serene and Luke high-fived.
“Um,” said Luke. “I mean, if your advice for Serene worked—do you have any good advice for me?”
“I do, I’m glad you asked,” Elliot said seriously. “Let me tell you a secret that gets people to go out with you. Lean in. A little closer.”
Luke leaned in.
“Ask him out,” said Elliot, and slapped Luke upside the head.
“Hey!” said Luke, not quite grinning. “Hey! You’re supposed to be a pacifist!”
“I am,” Elliot claimed. “That was a verbal reprimand… that got out of hand.”
“Do not have a catfight, boys, even if it is that time of the month,” said Serene, and when she saw them staring at her, she explained: “You know—women shed their dark feelings with their menses every month? But men, robbed of that outlet, have strange moodswings and become hysterical at a certain phase of the moon?”
There was the familiar pause of Luke and Elliot deciding to let that go, and change the subject.
“You just don’t understand,” said Luke. “You don’t know what it’s like to feel about someone the way Serene and I do.”
“Does feeling have any correlation with how you’re acting?” Elliot snapped. “Because you’re both acting like idiots.”
Elliot left his own damn cabin and went to the library instead of saying he knew what first love felt like. Because Luke was right: his hadn’t been fairytale love, storybook love. Unlike him, Serene and Luke were going to be loved back.
On the last Trigon game of the year. Elliot watched more of it than usual, because it might be his last time. It did not justify his attention, since Luke just tediously won and Serene tediously cheered as usual.
Then Luke pulled his shirt off before going into the changing rooms, and Elliot jumped up and ran in after him.
“Take off your shirt,” Elliot ordered, clicking his fingers.
“Uh,” Luke said. “No!”
“There’s something wrong with your shoulders!”
“I just strained them or something!” Luke shouted back. “They’ll stop hurting in a few days, it’s nothing to make a fuss about.”
The rest of the dressing room was staring at them. Dale had his shirt off, which was nice but not helpful. Elliot tried to think of a way to drag Luke down to the infirmary which did not involve Elliot himself going to the infirmary, where the medics were.
He couldn’t do it. Luke was probably right: he was fine. He was always fine.
“Luke,” said Elliot. “If they don’t. Promise me you’ll go to the infirmary over the summer.”
Luke looked convinced this was all some plot to humiliate him, but he muttered: “I promise.”
Elliot knew he could count on Luke to keep his word, so that was that: everything settled, as much as it could be.
Time to go home.
His dad had always hired someone to come in and cook and clean. They never stayed long. Elliot had learned to stay out of their way, after he heard one on the phone, complaining about needy, staring brats who gave her the creeps.
When he got home for the last summer, though, he found a woman called Gemma who seemed pleased to have company. He supposed he wasn’t a potential burden anymore.
“Are you going inter-railing round Europe with those kids down the road?” she asked. “Wait, no, silly me, of course not… they’re going today, aren’t they?”
“Is it that time already?” Elliot asked, and checked his watch. “Would you excuse me for one moment?”
He dashed up the steps from the kitchen into the hall, where he found his father walking in the door, briefcase in hand.
“Would you like to get rid of me all summer?” Elliot demanded. “Then give me some money now.”
His father looked at him, and then fished inside his suit jacket for his wallet.
So it was that when Tom and Susan Whatevertheirsurnamewas, who had occasionally been set up on awkward you-live-on-the-same-road playdates with Elliot between the ages of five and twelve, arrived at the platform for the train for London, Elliot was waiting for them.
“Great news!” Elliot declared. He looked them over: Tom’s glasses didn’t suit him, Susan’s hairband matched her shirt, and felt he was caught up on them. “My dad says I can come inter-railing with you.”
“But we didn’t—” began Tom.
“But we haven’t seen you in y—” began Susan.
Elliot looked at them with a brilliant expectant gaze. He’d found that usually burned away all but the words people were absolutely certain they wanted to say.
Tom and Susan sagged, clearly not having enough conviction to follow through.
Elliot beamed. “We’re going to have so much fun, guys.”
Inter-railing was fun: they soon formed a group of people the same age as they were, the group losing and finding new members at every train station but with a few people there for the long haul. Tom and Susan were still a little wary of Elliot on account of thinking he was pure mental, but herd mentality kicked in: they did not want to be left out. Elliot’s favourite member of the group, though, was a Greek girl called Pinelopi who was traveling on her own because she loved adventure.
In a night club they found in one of the back alleys in Prague, with a sword stuck in the stone floor of the lowest level, Elliot tried to kiss her.
She leaned away and laughed. “I thought you were gay.”
Something about her easy casual laugh made Elliot laugh too. “And what gave you that idea!”
“Well, the way you were looking at the half-naked guy juggling fire upstairs was one clue.”
Prague did have quality entertainment.
“I’m bisexual,” Elliot told her, and leaned in again slightly: not touching her, but silently asking her permission to do so.
“Well, the thing is…” said Pinelopi, and Elliot’s heart sank as he saw her searching for words, waiting for something like ‘I don’t think I could ever really trust a guy who’ or ‘too weird for me, thanks’ and felt his heart sink because more than hoping for anything else, he’d just liked her. “I have a boyfriend,” Pinelopi finished.
“Oh,” said Elliot. “You never said.”
Pinelopi shook her head. “No. This trip for me is about deciding a lot of things—where I want to go or stay somewhere, who I want to be. I didn’t want to close any doors on myself. But I—love him, and more than anything else, I don’t want to close the door on that.”
“Oh,” said Elliot, in a different tone, and smiled. “Understood.”
They walked out to see the sights, the next day: the spun-glass frosted fairytale that was the old city in Prague, as if you could cross the fragile arch of a bridge and enter into a world that was all fretwork and ice. From then on they usually went out together during the day, and met up with the others in the evening and for train rides. There was the stop in Luxembourg and its shimmering gray caves, and the restaurant where nobody could read the menu. There was Florence and the Duomo, a shell-pink building that rose unexpectedly before them out of the summer night and a shower of summer rain, as if it had risen from the sea.
Elliot went out on his own in Paris, though, bought gingerbread ice-cream in the early morning and ate it standing on one of the many bridges spanning the Seine. He went from one side to the other, looked at the wiry spike of the Eiffel Tower and the gold-inscribed dome lurking behind it, then from the other side the much closer gilt-and-glass bulk of the Louvre. Paris as the morning light washed over it, in glowing pearl and gray.
This was a whole world, the world he’d been born into, and there was so much of it he had not seen. Instead he was going to see seas with mermaids, harpies in the trees, trolls in the mountains. In five years or even ten, when the wars came, he would be there. He could have done something in this world, and he was not going to do it. He was going to do something else, and in choosing one path, another was lost. He spared a moment to feel something almost like grief.
He thought of Pinelopi, and what she had said about not wanting to close the door on love. He thought: as his mother had, as his father had, in their different ways.
If he’d really meant to stay, he would have told Luke and Serene. He would have said goodbye, made and kept promises to return another time.
He had thought about staying, but he’d never meant to. And he wasn’t going to.
Elliot threw what remained of his cone off the bridge, and walked away. The dark rippling river flowed on, without him watching.
When Tom and Susan got off in London, Elliot kissed Pinelopi goodbye and went too. They took the train down together, and early onset nostalgia made Tom and Susan share all their pictures with Elliot, and urge him to come by in a couple of days.
“Keep in touch this time, right, mate,” said Tom, punching him in the shoulder.
“Light blows as a male substitute for physical affection is a remnant from a brutal warrior culture, trust me on this,” Elliot told him, and left the platform.
Gemma was in the kitchen, making dinner before she went home. The house was otherwise gray and still, utterly unchanged. Elliot sat at the kitchen counter and talked to her lightly about his summer, showed her a picture of Pinelopi and a picture of the castle complex in Prague.
“I expect you’ll be back to school soon,” said Gemma.
“I expect I will.”
She hesitated, wiping her hands off on her apron. “I’m not sure if I’ll be here when you get back. This place is a little—it’s a little much for me.”
She didn’t have to tell him how it was. He had lived here for years, in a house that wanted to be silent until the silence was broken by a certain step and a certain voice, in a house holding its breath for someone’s return. If anyone held their breath long enough, they were dead.
“Who says I’m coming back?” asked Elliot.
He helped her get some glasses down from the top shelf: he was tall enough to reach it, now.
Then he had dinner with his father. It was quiet as usual, but not quiet like usual: this was a watchful quiet. Elliot waited, throughout the whole meal, and watched his father for even a glimmer of desire to speak.
He was not terribly surprised when it did not come.
He followed his father into the other room, and waited again in the quiet, in their last silence, broken only by the clink of his father pouring himself his first drink of the evening.
Then his father sat down, and Elliot spoke.
“You know what day it is. You know what’s coming.”
“I know that you’re going,” said his father, his voice tired, as if Elliot had been annoying him for years, as if he was incredibly difficult to bear with.
Elliot stood at the window with the light coming in, and tried not to let the heaviness of that look weigh him down.
“Do you know something else? If you’d loved me, I would’ve stayed,” said Elliot. “If you loved me, I would never have gone.”
“What do you want me to say?” his father asked. “I never felt it. I don’t have it in me.”
“I don’t want you to say anything. Not anymore. I wanted to say something.”
Elliot got up and opened the door, stepped outside and looked back in, at his father waiting in his chair, drink in his hand, even the light coming in the windows full of dust. Even if his mother came back, Elliot thought, his father wouldn’t know what to do or how to feel. What is not used becomes atrophied. He didn’t have it in him. And if she returned, Elliot would not be here.
“Your loss,” Elliot said to both of them, and shut the door.
That was love: Elliot couldn’t command it, couldn’t demand it. He could only leave the chill echoing place where it was not.
There was one more thing that Elliot had to do before he left. Carving his name onto a wall that most people would not see, symbolically leaving his name behind, was not really his style. So he bought some spray paint and a ladder.
All over the gray façade of his father’s house in scarlet letters he wrote: ELLIOT SCHAFER. He almost added: ‘was here’ but did not, partly because it was a little too clichéd vandal for him, and partly because it did not encompass all he wanted to say: was here, is no longer here, is somewhere almost unimaginably different, is all right.
He washed the red off his hands, whistling, and went to check on his pack. He’d packed everything he could think of, including an iPod loaded up with every favorite song old Joe had ever played for him. It would probably all go up in flames, but he was taking a chance.
He climbed the steps up to the clouds. He walked down to the Borderlands. He did not leave his name behind him, but carried it with him, along with his bag.
“Give it to me,” said Luke, sounding weary but also determined to stop Elliot hurting himself. “Whatever contraband you have, hand it over right now.”
Elliot did not, of course, but he appreciated the concern.
“WHOO! Go Luke!” Rachel and Serene stood up and yelled, their voices rising over the chaos of the year’s first Trigon match.
Under his breath and the sound of cheering, Elliot muttered: “Whoo.”
Once the excitement had settled slightly, Rachel lowered herself back down to the bench with a jingle of gold necklaces and reached out for one of Serene’s hands and one of Elliot’s.
“Luke asked me not to tell you guys,” said Rachel. “Well, he asked me not to tell Elliot. I think he thought you would tease him, because this is a little embarrassing.”
“High five that the teasing continues to get to him,” said Elliot. “You’d think he’d have built up an immunity over the years. Our sensitive flower.”
Serene gave him the dead-eyed stare that he loved.
“Self high-five,” Elliot decided. “Nice to know he still cares.”
“But the secret isn’t just embarrassing,” said Rachel. “It’s—it has the potential to be dangerous for him, and scary. He’s going to need his friends. And I know you two love him and will support him.”
If he hadn’t come back, Elliot thought, he wouldn’t have been, and was glad all over again, even if he was a little worried. But Rachel looked calm, and she loved Luke: she would not have been calm if she did not think Luke was going to be all right.
“Though I am honored by your confidence, I am unsure about learning something about my sword sister which he would rather I not know.” Serene bit her lip. “On the other hand, if you truly believe my knowing would be to his benefit…”
Serene’s decision made, Rachel looked to Elliot, and the soft rays of sunlight caught the glitter of her chains and rings, the gleam of her hair, but above all the glow in her eyes, loving Luke and asking for help. It was a look that expected to be answered, a loving demanding look confident there would be a similar look returned. The turn of summer into autumn would be easy this year, golden and sweet, and Elliot could not help believing they were all going to be all right.
“Sure,” said Elliot, laughing. “Please tell me an embarrassing secret about Luke. I would love that.”