Someone was brushing my hair.
As my eyes fluttered open, I first believed I was still at home in Rose Court, and I'd dozed off while Selea or Ise combed out my coiffure. But that delusion quickly died as I took in my surroundings. Phosphorescent moss hung like ripped lace from dripping stone outcrops that jutted from the cave walls and ceiling. Other than that, it was dark, damp, and the surf still beat against the rock in small pools whose water slapped up onto my outstretched legs, and tugged at my hair.
As I sat up further, I found, to my utmost surprise, that this cavern also housed a store of mirrors—some new and twinkling in the moss's eerie light, some old and cracked, rendering grotesque reflections of the play of shadow; some leant up against the cave wall, very large and ornate, while others were smaller, handheld pieces, and lay propped against stone at odd angles, scattered around the ground.
I do not think, no, that anyone has felt secure in a mortal body. It is not a nagging fear, yet when you reach to use a knife, fall near a cliff's edge, visit a sickly friend, you look to your own skin and see, it could be gone, gone without struggle, in the blink of an eye. I certainly thought I had passed beyond the earthly seas; Alrbiesh had netted another soul.
Yet my bones felt very real as they ached and cracked; my fear, the dry, acrid tang at the back of my throat, strangling my breath: that felt real too.
I started, pressed a cold hand to my throat. Was I, then, dead in truth? In this subterranean pocket, a presence far stronger than any I had ever before felt dwelt, its essence imbuing the stone in which it lived, and made me fingers tingle and sting in both horror and awe. Could this be where the evils that fell into the sea went? A veritable murky hell.
Not dead. Not yet. The voice was filled with centuries.
It probed my mind, unwanted, poking at thoughts and memories. And its touch was slimy, dark, the primeval sludge that lurks in stagnate pond bottoms—and it left dredges of sludge on everything it touched. I tried to shut it out, to numb my thoughts. But I could sense it in my head—the presence grinned, malevolent, mocking.
And from the corner of my eye, I saw a slithering, shadowy movement. It moved halfway into the lacking light, creeping and sly. I pressed a hand over my mouth; it was repugnant. Not exactly human, it had arms, a torso much like mine, and a head. But there, any resemblance ended. Its bottom half was made up of a collection of alligator scales, heavy, dangerous—the tail of a carnivore, with squid like tentacles shooting from the bottom, that had sharp, barbed hooks, waving lazily, as if in a breeze. No air moved in the cavern. It was grotesque, and I could not tear my eyes from it. Her.
Could it be Alrbiesh?
Dark, tangled hair like matted kelp hung over her brow, but her mouth was curved and red and vicious, and twisted in a predatory sneer that revealed tiny, pointed incisors that ran in numerous rows all around the gaping mouth.
Involuntarily, I stepped back, and again, I felt, without seeing any change in the creature, waves of derisive laughter.
You think you are important enough to stay alive. Fate might protect you? Your life is seconds compared to mine.
Alrbiesh's handmaidens shared her arrogance, it seemed, as well as the reality of her threat. I could only hope that I had not been rescued from drowning to serve as a light meal. Maybe you are skeptical, but you see, I firmly believed, having grown up mucked in superstition, in all fantastical elements in the world. Perhaps that's why they frightened me so. But I knew I was not crazy, nor dreaming. I was in death's throes, at the whim of a mermaid.
My Lady had been kind to me; all the time I had spent alive in Bonnoir had been under her blessing, and then my place among the noblewomen of Cecily's court. Would she remember me, swept far under the sea, away from sunlight and earth and warmth?
Fate. The words were a snaky echo drifting across my mind, and yet, in them, I heard a slight flutter, almost a tremble, which told me who still ruled the heavens. Alrbiesh might control the sea, but my Lady spun a wheel that wove all together, lives and gods, mortals and destiny, and anyone could be pulled into those threads.
What claim have you to her?
I clamped down on my thoughts, for, after all, I had none save a certain, whimsical faith that Fate, albeit fickle, was not cruel.
Your life. The words grew stronger. Tainted. Your life is not mine to take. But you are protected by ones who will hurt you. My Lady, at least, is honest. The creature slithered forward slightly, her beautiful reptilian gaze locked with mine, hypnotizing. And her next words were cruel.
Hurt you. And him. But it is too late. I didn't understand, but, at her words, something cold had clenched in my gut. Him? Who, which? And how? That was what I wanted, but instead, I heard myself asking, "How do I leave? How do I reach above?"
A flash of the predatory mouth. Will I tell you? The thought was cold, taunting. You, who presume to meddle with gods.
She moved until she reached the dark edges of the water. Look to yourself. And with a sickening—and despairing—splash, I was alone. I had never felt more hatred toward any being before; my hands trembled, I dug my nails into my palms, forced myself not to scream. I sunk to the ground, a packed, dense stone thrown into a river, clutching and tearing at my hair with frantic fingers, sinking inward into myself- my body composed of a thousand silent screams, each trying to tear their way to the surface. I couldn't cry, couldn't move, couldn't even shake my head. I could rot to my bones here before that thing came back, even cared. I was caged far below my own world, and the worst of it, was that my questions still rang in my ears. Who would I hurt—and when?
I sat, slouched against the cavern wall, damp and rot seeping into my soul. Look to yourself. That bitch. I wanted to rip her gilly throat out. Which was ironic, as she'd never truly uttered a sound. I picked up one of the cold pebbles laying about, and dashed it against the far wall. But it bounced back and cracked a mirror, shattering it from the center. As the pieces flew, I caught the quickest flash of my reflection rippling in one of the shards.
Look to yourself. Suddenly, the cold that had been gripping my chest like a vise evaporated in a gust, like an explosion of steam as you remove the pot top on the stove. I looked again at the pieces of glass. Look to yourself. Reflection, the pieces of glass. Mirrors. Me.
But my spirits quickly crashed again—what exactly was I meant to do? While Alrbiesh's creature hadn't left me to die, she hadn't exactly been kind. The sea showed little mercy.
I walked to the most ornate, ostentatious mirror I could find amongst the mermaid's possessions. I stared into it, watching the violet-golden irises stare back anxiously into the darkness. Nothing.
Look to yourself. The brine dripping from the moss echoed my slow and anxious heartbeat. I moved to the next mirror. Nothing. I had finally looked into all of them, and still, I stood, trapped in the cavern. Had I judged too fast? I stared hard at my reflection, recalling how I used to examine it in the sea, rather than in cool glass, and how it rippled—in the sea, my reflection was alive.
Rippling…there, in the mirror, my face began to waver, as if in and out of a sea fog. And I was no longer under the sea. Instead…
I whispered, "Rand?"
Was this all part of some mad fever dream? Was I truly still chilled and shaking in Rain's bed? But he looked so solid, so real, that I moved closer, stretched my hand to his form- his chest gently rising, falling, in the rhythm of sleep. As my fingertips brushed over his skin, butterfly wings skimming the sun, something spun through our bodies, like a thousand shimmering fireflies in my veins.
He woke. And pushed himself back as far from my touch as possible. "What in Fiorn's name—Violante?" His voice rose louder, rough from sleep, disbelieving. I could say nothing. Rand drug a hand down his face. "Not again," he muttered. "Damn you." His closed his eyes, opened them again, and stared. "You're a dream."
I shook my head in an idiotic fashion, tiptoed closer—he was the dream. I said as much, and he laughed, but it was a hard sound. "Oh, no, you wraith of sleep. You are made of mist and stars; you hold black roses in those cold and golden eyes. Dark rose hearts." He reached out a hand, but did not touch me.
"Are you running from something?" I echoed our first conversation, lifting my own hand. A hint of a smirk appeared, but vanished like smoke as a wash of moonlight spilt on through his window and flooded across my grin. Rand looked out through the glass at the twinkling stars.
"Moon in her heart," he whispered, curt. "Starlight in her smile." He turned away from me. "What makes fey so cruel, that you haunt a painter, lass. Fit for only earth." His heart pained in his voice; pride and ego cut, but something more.
Scared, scared I could not resist crying—I would not weep, not in front of him—I backed up, bumped back against the mirror, and it clutched- Rand dissolved from my view.
I awoke this time with sand in my mouth. The sun beat down, my skin felt tight and dry, grotesquely stretched across my bones, and my hair was wet and matted uncomfortably against my back. Rolling onto my side, I found myself on a long stretch of beach, with no indications as to where I otherwise was. Had I simply floated out here, my bizarre encounters merely dreams driven by panic and imagination? There was no way for me to know.
My legs shook as I stood, and my ripped, wet shift stuck irritatingly to my skin no matter how I tried adjusting it. Damnation. I couldn't just sit on the sand, waiting for rescue like an imbecile. There must be someone, or someplace, where I could find aid. So, I walked.