Content note: misgendering
The stranger from the sea had skin painted with maps, inked in all the colors known and unknown to the naked eye. When the guards brought him from the shore, he asked to speak with me.
My mother, the queen, attended a high ball in another land, as did my three sisters. I was alone. I invited the stranger into the library. His clothes were crisp and clean, the texture of moth wings, yet no amount of heat from the great hearth seemed to dry his hair.
“Why,” I asked, “do you see me.”
My mother and my tutors were not there to tell me the words were wrong; I had sent all the guards away.
I had always found trouble speaking aloud. Language flowed and danced in my mind, and I could imagine exactly what I would say—to anyone, to everyone—if the words did not tangle and turn to muddy ash on my tongue, thick and confusing. To speak with the throat and mouth was like spitting chips of broken stone, hard-edged and painful.
(But Mother would not accept this truth, even if I had means to explain, to beg her to understand and let me use my fingers or a pen to speak with her.)
“I have heard you dreaming,” said the stranger. “Spools of silk uncurled in gentle currents, wrapped about skin re-stretched and fit to a different shape. Gold and sapphire lions prowling deep, dropped from the tops of waves to white sand and coral trees.”
My breath whispered hot in my throat. All this I had dreamed; my longing unfurled along his words like mirrored stones, piling about my feet.
He looked up, wet hair shading dream-swept eyes. “I have seen wonders along the ocean beds, cities built of memory and coral, spires of shell and hope, ramparts stretching across rifts that dip into the very center of this world’s heart. I have sailed in whale bones and the caress of ancient cephalopods. Sunsets refracted into dizzying fractals and dipping into the velvet-soft sand of shallow pools.” He sighed and tipped his head back, letting damp locks like seaweed drip across his shoulders. “It is home to me, honored princess.”
“I am not a princess,” I whispered, and he was the first I had ever told. “I am a prince.”
“I beg your forgiveness.” He bowed low. “Honored prince.”
I swallowed, for it was not a response expected. Not in words so easily formed on his tongue.
“Why,” I said, “did you come.”
He smiled, his teeth like pearls and lips like polished agate. “I would like to show you my home, honored prince. Your dreams call out, asking for escape, and I would answer.”
(My mother cared for me, I thought, but she had three daughters who would succeed her on the throne before me. I did not want to rule. She would tell me that did not excuse taking risks. If I could answer, I would say I feared the dresses that hid me, constrained me, hurt me—I would say I feared this trap of being called daughter and never son.)
I lifted him by his hands from where he knelt, his skin as warm as liquid stone. Exultation winged high in my belly, for this stranger from the sea looked at me no different. I ached to follow him and view these wonders, a world where he had been bred to accept at a word who one was.
I wanted to be free. “Show me.”
He waited patient in the antechamber with a borrowed book of chanties I’d kept beneath my pillow. I bound my chest down (I had practiced often in a hidden passage behind the library, where a mirror thick with dust hung), slipped into suede trousers the tailor had crafted just for me (our secret, for she was kind), and left my feet bare. I wanted to feel the welcome chill of salt and current on my skin. I left my hair loose, wild and wind-tossed, a mane I dreamed seahorses had as they raced in herds below the waves.
I led the sea-stranger through unmapped halls, under granite and iron that made my mother’s castle. We stepped out onto cliffs. The sky buffered the horizon, molten with sunset clouds, a fiery pallet like my sister’s paints. The sea stretched out wine-bright below us.
“Where is the ship?” I asked against the biting, barking glee of wind.
He pointed down at the dark-massed waters that frothed against stone and limpet shells. Waves flecked salt into gull nests and painted the rock with fleeting impressions that dried and dribbled into memory, written to the heartbeat of the sea.
I saw no ship.
My mother taught me the arts from a young age: to dance, to fight, to discourse with suave words (a skill I could not master), to sew, to read, to think, to play the harp (which I loved until I was told it was a proper women’s instrument, and then I could not touch it without shame), to dream.
She often said, disappointment edged along her voice, “As fourth-born, daughter, you will likely marry for alliance, to strengthen our ties with other lands. You must learn how to manipulate and please, how to carry strong children, how to rule without being seen.”
I lowered my head so she would not see tears. (Though I found men attractive, I did not think they would see me for who I was and take a husband, not a wife.)
My mother did not teach me to leap from cliffs or to swim.
“Below,” said the stranger.
“You washed ashore.” That was what the guards had told me; that they found him adrift on the edge of the harbor, mapped with wondrous inks of places no one had ever seen.
He laughed, light and clear like a mountain spring that dances to the sea. “No, I told your people I swam ashore from the reef. Perhaps we misunderstood each other.”
I shrugged. The wind prickled at my shoulders and hummed along my neck. The sea was turning towards winter, and soon there would be snow.
He offered his hand. “Will you dive with me, my prince? We will not strike the rocks.” In his voice I heard his heart-truth—a melody twined with the ocean’s timeless song.
Behind us, I heard the guards calling for me.
I took his hand, and we jumped.
My eldest sister, who will be queen one day, was born without hearing. Mother taught her to speak with her hands, a beautiful language of gesture and the dance of fingers.
When I was young, I asked my sister clumsily if she would teach me. Mother said no, I could use my tongue and my sister could read lips. My sister said, “Yes.”
(We sat together in closets stuffed with dresses she loved, and talked by the light of a glass-globed candle when I was supposed to be in bed.
“What do you want to do when you grow up?” my sister asked once.
“Sail away,” I said with trembling hands.
“Will you come back and visit?” my eldest sister asked.)
As we fell, the sea reached up with a great wave and cupped our bodies, carrying us away from the sword-keen rocks, and down, down, under the salt and cold.
I kept my mouth tight, sudden fright bubbling up with lung-air that I could not breathe here beneath the waves.
The map-skinned stranger gestured, and I recognized his words: “Breathe. It is safe.”
Water pressed around, a second skin alive with music and light, even hidden from the sun. I shut my eyes.
His fingers brushed my palm, gentle.
When I looked at him again, he smiled, mouth open. Motes of light echoed in the water, curling down his throat. His chest moved as it had on land. “The seas always know their own,” he said. “You are safe here, my prince.”
I took a small breath—in water that was light as air, and then I breathed again and again and the sea laughed with delight and I looked at the traveler in wonder.
He grinned, and we swam down, where deep below on the pebbled floor I saw his ship.
It was built from coral and kelp, shaped like the great squid my second-eldest sister painted (for she too loved the sea). Its tentacles undulated in gentle patterns, woven from old rope speckled with seashells and silverware. The ship’s great eye was a bubble of blown glass, where inside smaller squid navigated the ship. He told me their names, lucid syllables soft as ink and ineffable on the tongue.
The traveler and I boarded the ship, and we set off.
The ship carried us from the winter-flecked waters towards warm beaches and crystalline currents, and we slid from the quarterdeck and into shoals of rainbow fish and gentle sharks. I breathed the water, as did he, and felt neither exhaustion nor fear nor leaden moods as I did in the winters of my mother’s castle.
Here, I felt alive.
“I, too, was once caught in words that did not fit my skin,” he said as manta rays pirouetted about us, white and gray and blue and green like gems spinning in the ocean sun. “I was born far from here, within closed walls and pale, cold lights.”
I held out a palm and a manta ray grazed a fin against it.
I had tried to flee on my own twice before. The first time was when my mother had paraded a series of portraits from far-off dukes and princes of different lands before me, and with them, letters of introduction. “Candidates for your hand in marriage,” my mother said. I saw, beneath the letters, her own sketches of wedding plans and the dress I would be made to wear.
So I had taken one of the knight’s chargers, coaxed with apples I’d often sneak into the stables, and rode out into a storm. I remembered the lightning and the sudden tree branch that fell and spooked the charger so he reared and threw me.
A broken leg and shattered wrist postponed my mother’s intentions, but not her anger, not her unyielding disappointment.
“Why did you do something so foolish, my daughter?”
I flinched beneath her stare, and I could not keep my answer glazed in lies. “Escape.”
“Escape?” My mother sounded baffled. “Why would you ever want to escape? You have everything you could want here.”
I was watched more closely after that, and not allowed near the stables.
The second time I ran, I did so on ship, crouched in boxes below the hold. But two of the sailors, creeping below deck to kiss in secret, saw me and reported my hiding spot. The captain escorted me back to my mother’s castle. I was not permitted near the docks without a guard to escort me.
“How did you escape?” I asked the sea-traveler, my fingers fluid and dancing with unexpected freedom a voice had never offered. (As when I loved the harp, my fingers were strong, decisive, true.)
His expression dimmed. “I thought the only escape was to drown.”
I looked away. (Sometimes I had thought the same, when I looked out the windows at the frothing waves and knew the guards waited outside my door.)
He rested his forehead against a manta ray. “The seas thought different. They let me cry and thrash and question, and in the end, they showed me there are other ways. I learned to live, and I swam the world over, seeing wonders. I heard you dreaming, my prince, and I thought you were like I, and so I came.”
My second-eldest sister painted the seas. Once, she painted me as I wanted to look: masculine, bearded, sitting in riding leathers astride a warhorse that reared before the sea. She gave me the painting in secret and said no one else had seen it. I put it by the mirror in the unknown passage.
I wrote thank you on my favorite handkerchief and tucked it in her paint box.
The traveler and I swam among schools of silver fish who each formed a letter in a fish-alphabet and told us stories of the great Fish-Mother who composed the first operas at the beginning of the world before setting sail for the stars.
“Do you visit home?” I asked him.
He shook his head. “I have been a pirate and a merchant and a sailor and a bard,” he said. “But I have never gone back. There is nothing left for me.”
On the rocks and sand below, crabs danced to their own music, claws raised to wave in rhythm.
The traveler tilted his head. “Will you return to your old home?”
I looked away and did not answer.
My third sister practiced alchemy in the wizard towers, inventing new paints and fireworks and medicines. Before she left for the ball in another land, she showed me the letters written to her by her love, an astronomer who was building a telescope so vast it would be able to see to the other side of heaven.
“She has asked me to marry her,” my sister said, happy tears in her eyes. “I said yes. I’m leaving after the ball.”
“Glad,” I said. I was, even if I would miss her.
My sister hugged me. “Of course we’ll come back to see you all. You’ll be here once in a while, won’t you?”
We dove deep, where curtained night unfolded to reveal underwater fires that sparked and rippled like the aurora borealis.
“What are the maps?” I asked as green-gold fire rippled past us and played across his skin, where in the deeps it glowed with ink unseen in the sun.
“Where I have traveled, and where I still wish to go,” he said. “Who I was, who I hope to be. There are maps of memory, of friends, of lovers and of family. Of dreams I have had, of dreams I see. You are here now,” and he pointed to a stretch of skin along his collarbone, where the painting my sister made was embossed in bioluminescent lines.
I liked it. I told him so.
He laughed, smiling bright as the bioluminescent jellyfish that twined in his hair and rode along his shoulders. “I’m glad.”
I swallowed. “Do you always see me as a man? As a prince?”
“Yes,” he said. “Unless you wish otherwise. I am many things, ever-changing. Today I am a man, like you. Sometimes I am a woman, or a person neither male nor female. Only tomorrow will I know what I am tomorrow.”
I smiled, then, at the beauty and the heart-truth in those words, and how the sea-traveler accepted and affirmed who I was—as no one else save my sisters had dared, as I had not dared for so much of my life for fear I would be told it was wrong.
“How much more is there to see?” I asked.
“Beyond measure,” he replied. “Will you explore them with me, my prince?”
My heart and mind soared with possibility, with yearning, with happiness.
“I want to visit my sisters.” I traced their names along my arms. I would ask the squid to tattoo their names in iridescent ink, for I wanted maps like he had, rippling over skin. “They know who I am. They understand.”
Perhaps, in time, I would also visit my mother, and tell her who I was, and had always been. Perhaps, in time, she would understand.
He smiled. “There is no need to choose between worlds, between life here or above. We can always return. Perhaps your sisters would like to visit us here as well?”
I smiled back as I swam beside him, and I said, “Yes.”
first published in
Scigentasy in May 2015
(c) 2015 by Merc Rustad