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art by Jeffrey Redmond

Blue and Blue

When not writing, Jennifer Linnaea practices Aikido, studies Japanese, and works at the local library in her adopted town of Eugene, Oregon. Her fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons and Interzone, among other places; she can be found online at jenniferlinnaea.com.

A school of tiny pearlescent fish dart before my face, turn onto Al-Azraq Way, and stop to hover in a cloud around the scarf-covered head of the cabinet maker's daughter. She is opening a painted drawer for a customer, gesturing to the ornate carvings, miming placing something special inside. In the watery light the scales of the fish shine like a halo of stars around her head. I wonder if she has ever seen stars, but even as I think it I know she hasn't.
The customer, an old man, comes from the sailing ship anchored high above. When he leaves her stall he carries his cabinet wrapped in cloth and kicks hard against its weight. At sunset the ship will sail away, taking him and all its passengers, and the sunken market will belong to the sunken folk once more.
Except I will remain.
I float away, back down the main artery called Dahab Naquiyy, past the necklace seller. Today she is showcasing a torque of gold, hammer-beaten, with a shark's grim hunting spell inscribed on the front. Only a few words, as the sharks are a curt people. It reads, "Bring Me Meat."
An eel wraps itself around my waist as I drift past shoals of shoppers. When I reach the Wall it slithers through a crack and is gone. I put my eye to the crack; all I see is blue and blue.
I'm in love with the cabinetmaker's daughter. I have been since the moment I dove into her world and found her there. I do not know her name because the sunken folk, being still bound to the land they came from, cannot speak underwater any better than I. But I have implored her, beseeched her with every gesture I know, to come home with me. To live beneath the stars and the vault of air and the unfiltered light. But she refuses. She makes me understand that she is happy here. The silver fishes hide in the floating strands of hair that escape her scarf; their scales bring out the pale glints in her eyes.
The next day a huge galleon floats into the harbor. As prescribed it carefully lowers its anchor into the water and waits for the paid boys to swim up and meet it, to secure it somewhere it won't drag into the racks of delicate spell nets or crash into the pearl vendor's buckets. Next, thirty or more sailors cleave the water with neat dives. They swim gracefully with their legs tight together, undulating their bodies.
The captain of the ship--he is marked by his embroidered sash--buys the golden torque. I watch him fasten it around his neck and smile a shark's smile while his men look on in admiration. Next they buy up other spells from other vendors--spells for riding swift currents, spells for seeing in dark places, spells for binding and unbinding--but still they do not seem satisfied. It is when one of them notices my own spell that I find myself surrounded by hard-faced sailors.
There is nowhere to run. One of them motions to my chest. All around me in a tight circle, daggers have appeared--the sailors shift them from hand to hand so that they continually glint and flash.
Suddenly the cabinetmaker is there. He holds a set of drawers before him like an offering, and the men smirk but shift uneasily. All sorts of magic could be hidden in drawers so small, so lovingly perfect. For a moment we are as still as kelp--the current billows our clothing and wafts our hair around our faces. Then the men drift away, steel-eyed, hateful.
The cabinetmaker watches them go, then turns back to me. He opens a drawer. Out of it he pulls a shard of shell. He motions to it and to my spell, and back again. A trade.
Around my neck, inscribed on a bib of sealskin, is the spell that keeps the sunken city from rejecting me. It was sung by a siren and it is long and heavy and sad. Without it I would be just a man and would have to go away on the ships with the others, come nightfall. I gaze at the cabinetmaker and hope flares up in my chest. Could it be that he has a spell that will let me truly be one of them? Could it be that he approves of my love for his child?
He offers the shell again, and I take it to look. It is inscribed with a spell I've never seen before, not for sale in the market proper or in any of its dim back alleys. The words flowing across it almost glow with desire. They say, "May I see the stars again."
The shell falls from my fingers. It is not a spell that belongs here in this underwater world. It is a spell for a foreigner with foreign desires--I could not have been more hurt if the cabinetmaker had struck me. I clutch my spell to my chest and swim blindly from the maze of stalls, out to where ancient buildings back up against the Wall. There I sit with my face in my hands until the light fades. When it is full dark I mouth the words "I don't want to go" over and over again in the darkness.
They attack me in my sleep. They are from the land and at first I am confused as to how they can be here at all, until I see the spells glinting from rings, earrings, bracelets adorning them. The spell to ride swift currents, the spell for seeing in dark places. As for being in the sunken city at night--they hold their breath.
They are many, and the binding spell they bought is strong. They hold my arms out and rip the bib from my body. Immediately I suck in a mouthful of water. I am drowning. Sparks flash before my eyes as I kick out blindly but there is nothing to hold onto and I can't shout for help. Even if I could, there is no one here or in the whole world, anywhere, who would come to save me. I know this more certainly than I have ever known anything in my entire life.
I watch from a great distance. The men on the galleon, the greedy men with the shark-hearted captain, conquer the sunken market.
They use my spell to do it.
The sunken folk fight, of course. The cabinetmaker and his daughter conceal all manner of devious spells for the sailors to find. Other merchants have spells from the depths, spells of such great weight and pressure that no normal man could hope to stand against them. But the galleon men are not normal men; they know what they want and they do not care about anything but that they get it.
I watch them prevail.
After it is over I hover over the broken city, a cloud of pale fish floating ghostlike around me. The cabinetmaker's daughter is no longer down there. I felt her soul flow away, eel-like, on the tide, and there is no spell in any world that can forefend that journey.
But there is one thing I can do. One thing I must do for these people, the sunken folk, who are the closest thing I have to a people of my own. With the power of my death I catch a spell out of the aether with my bare hands and write it in luminescence over the waters around the invader's ship. It is terse as shark-speech: "Not Yours."
I turn away, satisfied. The sunken folk will have their market back. One day soon they will drive the invaders back over the Wall and out to deep water. No magic those land men can use will stop it.
I lift my eyes to the sky, where a million stars burn. I wish she could have seen them. It was so beautiful, my dream of life with her. If I had known how then I would have caught a spell out of it and cast it over her market stall. When she saw how lovely it was, she would have come. I know she would have come with me.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, August 7th, 2012
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