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Fiction – “Bird Out of Water” by Lindsey Duncan

A bird and a fish may fall in love, but where would they live? – Traditional Saying

Vri’s gills fluttered as human steps drew near. It was excitement rather than breath, for the gills were vestigial. She coiled by the waterfall, finned tail twined against the rocks, and listened, damping her reaction with caution. They were trying to be stealthy, which she suspected was not a positive sign.

She flexed her back, tucking her wings in case she needed to swim. She had escaped notice before – travelers wanting to gawk at the bizarre creature – by making the short flight up the cliffs, but that would expose her if they meant violence.

Her eagle talons braced against the bank. There: six men dressed in green and gray; hard men, scruffy and unkempt. Three carried glinting spears, the others a fishing net. Vri bristled, restraining a hiss. Her father had taught her the damage the weapons could do to merfolk.

She rolled from the bank. The men morphed into dim, wavering shapes as she went under. She flinched as they gestured … but they weren’t looking in her direction. Tail-flicks took her towards the center of the lake. They were here for her, which meant she could not simply submerge and wait for them to grow bored.

Indignation flared. She was not a beast like her mother’s kind, prone to theft and vandalism. What had she done to be hunted?

She could swim the lake by memory, meaning she could watch the shore. This might have saved her life, as one color-blob whirled and jabbed a water-obscured appendage in her direction. She arched her back and dove as another man launched his spear.

It slashed the surface inches from her arm and disappeared into the deep. Vri didn’t try to roll, knowing from experience her wings would make it an awkward maneuver. Instead, she scythed through the water towards a feeding stream.

One man stormed into the shallows with his spear. The others bolted along the shore. Imagining that cruel length of iron lodged into her chest, Vri fought not to flinch. She focused on her sense of the river mouth. Three body-lengths away … two …

She surfaced for air. Their shouts hit her ears; two more spears launched.

Vri stroked sideways. One spear flashed to her left, slapping the water; the other cut through overhanging branches. She propelled herself into sheltered waters with a gasp of relief.

She swam until the second bend and beached, lying in the sand. More than fear, frustration made her want to cry. Her father had promised he would take her to see the world … somehow, for she could not cross oceans as he could. After his death, her world had shrunk to this lake and tributaries, with her only company the birds – who thought of her as a meal too large to catch – and the fish – who thought of her as a predator. The humans who came through avoided her or fled after staring.

“Hello?”

The voice was a summer-rain tenor, and came from the other shore. Vri jerked, her tail sliding into the water. She thrashed about to face her opponent.

He was a young human, slight with a gaunt face and hair the color of new bark. She was fascinated by his legs, having no such appendages – and for the same reason, his hands. They were long and spidery, smooth as dew and pale.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Calis Greenward,” he said. “You must be the guardian of these waters.”

She was proud of being so addressed, fluttering sodden feathers. “This is my home, yes. My name is Vri.”

“Oh! They said you might speak, but I never imagined it would be so well.” He crept forward to study her. She tolerated the inspection, though she knew she was ugly, with a hag’s face and wrinkles veining her neck. “You have beautiful eyes,” he continued. “Like blue pearls.”

Vri twitched her tail, subconscious punctuation. “Aren’t you frightened of me?”

“Frightened? Why would I be?” Calis spread his hands, sliding down the sand until he sat in front of her.

“I’m a beast.” She burned, angry at him for not showing the hostility of others, of presenting her with a puzzle she could not solve. “My mother’s harpy tribe destroyed every feast for a hundred miles. My father’s merfolk kin drowned over a dozen ships.” She was not proud of this, but she knew she could not escape it.

“Would you do such things to me?” His voice was gentle.

“No! I cannot. I am the weakest parts of both. I would not,” Vri hastened on, anxious not to alarm him. If he disappeared, she would never comprehend why he treated her so kindly.

“You sound unhappy,” he said.

She glanced anxiously towards the lake. The hunters had not pursued. “I am.”

“Do you know you could change?” Calis leaned forward until he seemed in danger of sprawling into the river. “Vidaneus, God of Mankind, has a fountain in my home city. People who bathe in it are cured of all ailments; others are granted the gift of humanity. I saw a centaur who was in love with a huntress walk into the fountain so he might live in the forest with his beloved.”

Centaurs, Vri knew from hearsay, were beautiful creatures, their halves seamlessly melded together. Was love important enough to justify giving that up? Her parents had been in love, and they had created a useless hybrid.

“I could never travel that far,” she said.

“It isn’t such a difficult journey.” Calis smiled brightly. “Two days overland, then the Essel River runs slow and broad. Wouldn’t it be worth it? To be what you wished to be? I could help,” he offered. “I have friends, we could build a litter.”

Vri knew there was something strange about this. “Why would you help me?”

“Because it isn’t right that someone should be so unhappy,” he said. “How sheltered have you been? If you knew more about humanity, you wouldn’t be so surprised. We want to see the best for our fellow man – err. Creature.”

She had seen few humans in her lifetime, spoken to fewer. It did not seem unlikely that those who hacked through a forest in search of the product of monsters would be the darker side of the species. And – he seemed very nice to look at her and not flinch.

If this was her chance to see something beyond the lake … wasn’t it worth the risk?

“Will you come?” he asked.

Vri took a firm grip upon her quickening heart. “I would like that.”

“Stay here, then,” he said. “I’ll bring my companions.”

She doubted they would be nice as he was. “Hurry. There are hunters nearby.”

Calis seemed about to reassure her, then shrugged and scampered up the bank. He disappeared into the trees.

The snapping of branches set her teeth on edge, but she knew these would be his friends, so she waited. She cried out when the men who had menaced her emerged. She swerved in the sand to launch into the river. The net caught her first.

She thrashed, trying to cut the weave with her claws, but it was too heavy – then shrieked, a graceless fish as she flopped halfway in the water. She sought out Calis to glare. “You said you would help me!”

“I will,” he said with an ironic smile. “You’ll be fed well in the tyrant’s zoo. You’ll have the opportunity to see the world – or at least, the part that lies between here and Taliria. It’s the best a monster can hope for.” He spoke without rancor – cheerful, matter-of-fact – then turned to the hunters. “I told you she would trust me enough to get you close.”

The big man who seemed in charge snorted, smacking him on the shoulder. “After we scared her into your grasp, little weasel. Get her packed up.”

Vri had wild thoughts of injuring them, of beating them back until they decided there must be another freak who was easier to capture, but they avoided her claws, and her mouth was of no use – she had only two small fangs for ripping into meat. She squealed, venting her frustration.

“Like a child throwing a temper tantrum,” one hunter said.

That just made her angrier, but her energy vented out into fear and confusion. What was a zoo? What awaited her there? And, a tiny voice wondered, had Calis been lying to her entirely? Or did the fountain of Vidaneus really exist?

***

The hunters strung the net between two poles. To look out – and breathe without her chin crushed against her chest – Vri had to twist her neck until it almost popped. She swung between two discomforts. Only pride kept her from crying. Calis stayed at the front, talking about his cousin and the proper care of exotic creatures.

Her lake disappeared so fast she had no chance to say goodbye. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that – it had been her home, but it had also confined her. Unknown hours passed, the world spinning by in hostile spurts of green. Finally, the hunters stopped, moving to drop her.

“Gently!” Calis said. “Those wings are fragile. If they break …”

“What does it matter?” the leader asked. “She can barely fly.”

“She’ll be on display. The patrons need to see them.” Calis stood with one foot near the nets. She squirmed, using her tail for leverage.

The hunter snorted. “Those pathetic scraps she has? You’re mad, little weasel.”

“Tell the tyrant that.” Calis shrugged. “He said unharmed. I’m doing as commanded.”

Vri sunk her teeth into his ankle with a satisfying crunch. She had never tasted human blood before, and it was hot and savory. She would have shaken him to the ground, but he wrenched free with a howl, and the hunter lunged up with his spear.

“No!” Calis gasped. “Unharmed. No exceptions.”

The hunter retreated, growling. “Foul beast.”

Vri stared at them and licked her lips. If these men called her an animal, then she was proud of the label.

***

At first, Vri thought the astonishing expanse of water, blue hazed under white, was the ocean. By the hunters’ remarks, she realized it was the Essel River.

People rushed from the decks of boats and helped the hunters as they hefted her prison, Calis directing. They fixed the poles to the largest boat so the net hung halfway into the water. It billowed out so she could swim, with effort. When worn out, she clung to the side of the boat and gasped for air.

“Are you well, Vri?”

She bared her teeth. “Come here and find out, little weasel.”

He laughed as if pleased by her use of the insult. His foot was bandaged; she was pleased to see it made his leg look lumpish. “You’ll thank me in the end. Your life will be better in Taliria than it ever would be here.”

She wrenched at the nets with one talon. “Yet you give me no choice.”

He shrugged. “Lunch,” he said, tossing raw fish over the side. “Eat separately,” he warned the crew. “If there’s a feast laid out, you might awaken the harpy within her.”

Nothing these people ate could be a feast. Vri picked out the best fish and nudged the others from the net for scavengers.

***

Taliria was the first city Vri had ever seen, and it both puzzled and disappointed her. The massive boats looming on the docks were impressive, their sails and rigging a white-leaf forest, but the city itself was composed of countless rectangles of mud, protruding from the earth until they obscured its shape. Garish color was slapped onto some of these angular constructions as if to make them look pretty, but it was nothing like the swirl of her lake’s rainbow fish. Stone paths criss-crossed the city. Their fractal complexity left her irritated and confused.

She was curious about the people, who from afar looked like children of the same brood, but she never had a chance to see them. Men bearing a wooden chest met the hunters at the docks.

“Tyrant wants to see his prize before the common people do,” Calis relayed. “Load her up.”

She yelped as they hauled her out of the water and draped her – nets, poles and all – into the box. The poles pressed up against her chest. She opened her mouth to protest and found herself shut in cedar darkness.

They trotted at a brisk pace. Vri fought to distinguish voices, but heard only the snap of individual words – “coins,” “mother,” “whipped,” – over a strident melee. She smelled things thick and pungent, hard and burning – others twinged at the back of her mouth like spring blossoms. Fascinated by these scraps, she struggled to make sense of them … but there was no way to guess their purpose, nor to know the names of things, so she settled for spinning herself fables and grouping them by sweet or sharp, fresh or spoiled.

They passed into silence and stone. The footsteps of her bearers rang off rock. She smelled animal flesh and excrement, and shivered, squirming deeper into the box. She did not have an exceptionally sharp nose, but she knew sickness when she encountered it.

The box dropped, heaved onto its side. She hit the lid and rolled out. Stunned, she stared at a stone ceiling six body-lengths above. An old tree half-shadowed her view, but there was something wrong about it. She saw by squinting it wasn’t real, made out of clay with sculptured leaves.

Hands tugged the nets, sending her every which way. Vri shrieked, trying to free herself so she could attack her escort, but by the time she snapped her tail free of the sodden mass, they had retreated beyond sturdy iron bars.

The light – provided by covered flames – wasn’t enough to see more than a few paces outside her cage. Stone walls bounded her on the other sides. A pool filled the back of the chamber, the reeds growing along it as fake as the tree.

She found Calis amongst the men and glared. “What is this?”

“This is the Great Zoo of Taliria,” he said. “You’re the newest exhibit. The tyrant himself is eagerly awaiting your arrival. It’s an exciting prospect.” His eyes glowed, and she realized – with some disbelief – that he was not mocking her.

“How long do I stay here?” she asked.

“Until he or the warden approves your removal.” He paused. “Indefinitely.”

Vri’s body shook. She wanted to launch herself at the bars, but she knew they would step back and laugh at her. She turned her back on them and dove into the pond, but it was shallow and clear. There was no escape from their eyes.

She could hear voices at a distance, apparently touring the zoo, but she seemed to be the only creature in this section. Shouting earned her no response, either from other captives or visitors.

Sore and scared, she curled up and waited.

***

They fed Vri twice before the tyrant came to see her, and by then, she had a plan. Unlike any plan she had formed before, this one involved talking.

He arrived with great fuss and several attendants whose only function seemed to be to fill up space and echo his every move. The tyrant was a big man, top-heavy with sunken eyes.

Among his companions were Calis and an older man who bore striking resemblance to him. From their conversations, she figured out the warden was his cousin. She would have watched them to see how families behaved, except she still held hope that other humans did not have Calis’ rottenness, and therefore she could not take his behavior as normal.

“Vri,” Calis called, “come forward and meet the ruler of Taliria.”

The tyrant glanced at him in surprise. “Does it speak, then?”

“Of course I speak!” Vri undulated out of the water, draping her arms over a rock – a real rock, for unlike foliage, rocks did not need sun to flourish. “As well as you.” She heard the highness of her voice and winced. She had not meant to come across angry.

The tyrant stepped to the bars and regarded her. “The most remarkable blue eyes,” he said. “And …” His gaze went down, and he blushed. “Why is she not clothed?”

The warden seemed to be wondering the same. The look he gave his cousin was thunderous.

“She’s not a human being, your magnificence,” Calis said hastily. “Thus, it seemed unnatural to clothe her. Besides, that hides the unusual demarcation between skin and scales – err, when she is stretched out.”

Vri did not understand the fuss – she had seen the hunters casually throw their shirts about – but she did recognize that he wanted her to do something. Firmly, she folded her tail where it could not be seen.

“Tyrant,” she called, “I will wear anything you choose, if you listen to me.”

Those sunken eyes lifted. “I do not usually take conditions, creature. What do you want?”

“I know your language. I can think like you do.” She was guessing, but that did not seem as if it could be very wrong. “I have feelings and hopes.”

“Yes …?”

“I am like you in important ways,” she said. “Do you keep your people in cages?”

“Some of them, yes,” the tyrant replied. “The criminals.”

Vri flicked a hungry look to Calis. She very much wanted to see him in a cage. “I am not a criminal, am I?”

“Your magnificence,” Calis said nervously, “this is only the semblance of intelligence …” He fell silent as the warden squeezed his arm.

“An intricate semblance,” the tyrant said – he seemed to be agreeing. “You’re not a criminal, Vri, but only humans have rights in my city. You’re not a human, you’re a curiosity.”

He had not called her a beast, and she was strangely relieved even as she flailed at the impossible circle in which she was trapped. “Supposing I do not behave?” she said.

The tyrant held up a hand to forestall responses from the warden and Calis. “You don’t want to do that.” He said nothing more, and his voice was not raised, but his tone had elements Vri had never heard before and instinctively recoiled from. “Live up to human standards, and you will be treated well.”

Why should she? she thought with a burst of indignation. She was the offspring of two beasts, wild by nature. And now, she had little hope Taliria could teach her otherwise.

Vri did not speak further. The tyrant watched her; then, using that same voice, he instructed her to extend her tail. Hastily, she did. He departed without another word, the ineffable crowd of retainers behind him.

***

One feeding later, visitors swarmed in front of Vri’s cage, jostling, staring, exclaiming. It frightened her to the back of the pool. She had been mocked before and had others flee in fear, but there had always been escape from the reactions. She had never been badgered by so much at once. Children jeered and hurled insults, some of which relied too much on city-slang for her to understand.

There was no way to shield herself from their revulsion. On her back, her wings were hidden, but that revealed the unnatural teal of her flesh before it turned into scales. She might twist under the rocks, but she could not hold the position and it revealed wrinkled jowls, old-woman skin. She might fly up to the tree-perch, but this left her exposed as her belly was revealed. She learned other faults as they were mentioned.

Some admired her. Their voices whispered under the crowd, timid – as if they were as ashamed as she. They marveled over her eyes, how a creature such as she could have survived …

“An amazing union of earth and sky,” said a white-haired man.

“Thank you,” she said, the first time she had spoken to the crowds.

They gasped as one and crowded close, asking questions – some curious, others apparently trying to prove her speech was a trick. A group of young men prodded her with incomprehensible questions about her “bedroom” habits and egg-laying, and though she didn’t understand their aim, she felt assaulted and uncomfortable. After that experience, she only spoke when the crowds were thin and seemed sympathetic.

Throughout, Vri studied the humans: thin ones, rotund ones, those brightly dressed and others who were dark blotches of color. Some were fierce bursts of emotion; others seemed to feel nothing, interacting with the world by habit. Had she not been so weary and confused, she could almost have imagined the bars went the other way and it was they who were trapped.

The keepers fed her before the Great Zoo opened, once during the day, and then after it closed. It was usually Calis who came, which meant she had a chance to discover the meaning of the foul phrases she had heard. Sometimes, she had only his color to judge how bad a thing was, for he wouldn’t answer.

“Why do I see you so often?” she asked him. To her chagrin, he was the only worker she could identify every time. She would not have known the warden, except everyone deferred to him, and he had Calis’ turned-up nose.

“I’m in charge of you,” he said. “You catch it, you keep it, I guess.”

“You must not like that.” She wanted the satisfaction of hearing it.

“Don’t mind it,” he said. “You’re a decent creature, Vri, when you’re not angry at me – and by your perspective, you have a right to be. Get past it, and I could help you.”

Vri stared, but she was strangely pleased to find he did not hate her – even if she was not sure she could return the feeling. “You make no sense.”

He laughed as if surprised. “Thank you!”

If being human meant having such peculiarities, maybe it was too much effort.

***

As time passed, Vri lost interest in the crowds. For all their variations, each person was much like the next with the same reactions – only the order and prominence varied. They all hid things by habit, from the true size of their frame to their thoughts to how much money they carried in their purses. Without exception, the things they concealed so frantically were not important.

By contrast, even through the insults, she grew a seed of insidious pride. She was not of the crowd; she was unique. There had never been a creature like her, and probably would never be again. Numerous people came to see her. Some of the crowd expressed they had crossed hundreds of miles to see the Great Zoo’s newest addition. Would anyone come a hundred miles to see another human? She doubted it.

One night, she had a different question. “You told me there was a fountain that could make me human,” she said. “Was that a lie?”

Calis watched her, obviously in thought. “No,” he said, “there is such a place, three tiers above us in Vidaneus’ temple. The best lies are spun of a little truth.”

You made me hope, Vri wanted to shout, but she refused to remind him she had considered herself as much a beast as he did. “I would never go there,” she said.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” he said, then smiled with his usual cheer. “It’s your only hope. Even if you get out, you’ll still be caged by your nature.” He sounded so earnest – as if he thought she could be anything, with that change of shape. It was a compliment, though she did not know if she should be pleased.

“Tell me about the city,” she said.

She was surprised when he readily began his tale, but the long avenues sounded cold, the buildings too cramped for flight, only the Essel below for swimming. This was not the place for her current form, and she felt a twinge of disappointment. If she did ever leave, was the fountain her only choice?

Still, he loved it – she could tell by the light in his eyes. “Thank you,” she said.

“You’re welcome, Vri. I hope you see it someday.” He bowed before walking away.

***

The sailors stood out in the amorphous mass of people. They wore blue silk and smelled of something acrid – not unpleasant, but persistent. Their hidden eyes could be felt through the veils, always watching. One approached the bars and seated himself with a board across his knees and a piece of parchment stretched on that. He laid down lines of charcoal, beginning to approximate a shape – her shape, Vri realized with something between delight and unease.

She crept closer so she could see how she was portrayed. He had started with her eyes, and those were very pretty, but the drawing moved outwards.

He looked up, flashing a smile. Before now, she had not been aware that so many teeth could be friendly. Had she been sending Calis the wrong signals? “Hello,” he said.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“Sketching you.” He turned the board so she had a better view. “Do you mind? I’ll tear it up.”

She was enchanted at the idea he would be so thoughtful. “No, you can continue.” She considered, then imitated his choice of pose. He chuckled and continued his drawing, long curves and full lines. He smudged with his finger to portray shadow, and she sat quietly, intrigued by the interplay of his hands.

When he had finished, he turned it for her inspection. She trilled in surprise. The sketch looked fierce, exotic and quite impressive – the awkward angles were nowhere to be seen.

“That’s not me,” she said.

He studied the sketch, looking rueful. “No, you’re right. I’ve missed a lot of subtleties. Do you mind if I come back?”

Foolish humans and their questions!

The next time he came, she braved one of her own. “Where do you come from?” she said.

“Dannis,” he said. “It’s an amazing city, built on a half-submerged island. Legend says it used to be a volcano. Half the streets are canals -”

“What’s a canal?” she asked.

He explained, and her eyes lit. They sounded like streets designed for her. He described the city, its towers and spires, its balcony walks, and she discovered a place perfect for her weaknesses. She asked him where it was.

“Not far from here,” he said. “Three days along the river to the ocean, then four up the coast.”

A journey she could make, though it would be the hardest of her life … but after being burned by Calis, she no longer trusted that such places existed.

That evening, a different worker came to feed her. She asked him about Dannis, and was astonished when he told the same stories. She wanted to dream of the city, but she had no pictures of it until the next day, when the artist brought sketches he had done of his home.

“That’s called a family tower,” he explained. “Every time a new generation is born, they add another floor.”

It looked like a bird’s nest to her, piled in silt-drift layers. The shape delighted her. She had been filled, of recent days, with certainty that her nature was something to be prized: now it had a home, if only she could reach Dannis.

***

Vri’s plan required several feedings of preparation. She hoarded part of each meal under a rock where it could not be found – and then, when she had enough, she refused to eat.

She tore into her stash in secret to ensure she stayed strong, but ate little enough she didn’t have to fake the droopiness that had visitors muttering and nudging each other. After two days, Calis was frantic.

“Why won’t you eat?” he asked.

She ignored him, tucking her head against her chest.

“Vri! You can’t starve yourself. That’s not the way out.”

She deigned to uncurl. “What is the way out?”

“That …” Calis had no answer, his look helpless. “Never mind. Please.”

It would have been smarter to wait, but her gnawing stomach and anxiety propelled her. “I want you to do something for me,” she said. “Then I’ll eat again.”

“What?” He crossed his arms.

“I miss the sun,” she said. “I want to go outside. Not into one of the bird sanctuaries, out in the open air.”

He answered readily. He was, she realized, genuinely worried – for her health, or because her health affected his job? “I can get a few of the fellows together and …”

“I don’t want people watching me. Just you.” Vri stared him down.

“You promise not to try and make a break for it? There’s nowhere you could go,” he added.

Vri bowed her head and hoped she looked meek. “Of course. I know that.”

She wasn’t sure whether he trusted her – or thought she was too simple to lie – or whether he believed she was too weak with hunger to be difficult. “All right,” he said. “Tomorrow, after the zoo has closed. Now eat something. Please.”

“Not,” she said with a bared-tooth smile, “until I’ve been outside.”

“I guess you have no reason to trust me.” Calis closed his eyes and sighed. “You could have just asked. It’s a small favor.”

She was not sure this was true, but she thought he believed it, so she smiled a little. “Good night, Calis.”

“Good night, Vri.” He headed off.

She waited, then dug up her stash, downing half in a few gulps. Tomorrow, she would be ready.

***

The artist did not appear that day, which was good: Vri wanted to tell him everything, and someone might overhear. By nightfall, she scrabbled excitedly inside her mind. Escape, freedom – and a place she could be happy. It seemed impossible.

Calis unlocked the gate. “Come on,” he said. “I’ve had the others clear out. You have twenty minutes. I’m sorry it’s not longer.” He seemed uneasy. She felt briefly guilty about putting him in this situation – how would he be punished? – but this was her only chance.

He led her through the Great Zoo with restrained impatience. She could not move fast, her claws finding little purchase on the smooth rock. She saw other cages with frustrated inhabitants, but none looked humanoid, and she was afraid if she called out, Calis would end their trip.

It was a short journey. They emerged onto a rocky platform overlooking Taliria and the sinking sun. It was surrounded by a precipitous drop, piles of scree, and then rooftops. On one side of the platform stood tables, chairs and a mysterious collection of wooden objects, three orbs and others pear-shaped.

“This is the workers’ patio,” Calis explained. “This is a game we play …”

He led her over and talked her through the setup, where the pins stood and how the ball was thrown. Vri rested her elbows on the table – feigning interest, even with excitement bubbling through her veins. “Where your ball ends up is important. You see …”

He bent over … just enough. With arm muscles built up from years pulling her weight, she leaned against the table and slammed him sideways with her tail. He went down with a cry. She hit him again, sending him a-roll amongst the game pieces. They clattered every which way.

Vri leapt, spreading her wings. Their frantic beat carried her a few feet into the air, then a few more.

“Vri!” Calis yelped, scrabbling to get his feet underneath him. Dizzily, he crashed back down. “God’s teeth, you promised …”

“So did you,” she countered as she reached the edge. She let herself drop.

Gliding was easier than flying, and she had plenty of height. A few wingbeats straightened her out and brought her low over the roofs. She landed, with a thump, in a deserted courtyard.

“Vri!” His voice was distant now, cursing. “I’m calling the guards!”

They would have to find her first, and she did not intend to remain. Digging talons into the cobbled stone, she propelled herself onto the street.

***

Vri headed with more determination than confidence in the direction where the buildings stopped, thinking she could escape Taliria there. It seemed like a good plan until she encountered the first group of city-dwellers.

They screamed and pointed, knees shaking, eyes wild. She tried to talk to them, but they shrieked louder than any bird and ran.

Vri watched them go, her heart shuddering as if she had been the one confronted by a beast. Maybe it was bad luck. There must be people who could see past her outward form …

Two more encounters convinced her this must – somehow – be impossible. She sought shadows with desperation, ducking down streets to avoid the evening progress of people. A right turn, then another, to get back on course … wait. Something seemed amiss, and the sun was no longer in the direction she had expected.

Vri refused to be lost until she realized there was no other explanation. The only direction she was sure of was up, towards the Great Zoo – also, she remembered, towards the temple of Vidaneus.

Heavier steps drove her into a makeshift alley between buildings. She tried to breathe slowly, though ripples of exhaustion played through her. She peeked out and saw people in uniform.

“Split up,” one directed. “If you find the half-breed, raise the alarm, then pursue. You’re allowed to damage it, but not kill.”

Her, Vri thought, both in correction and in recognition. They were talking about her.

She curled up, waiting for them to pass. It seemed to take forever for them to move, even longer for her limbs to recover from their fright. She could feel the net weighing on her, even though she was free. Her options were closing, she was lost – she had never expected to need a friendly guide. Now there was no way to find one, unless …

Unless she looked like everyone else.

Defiance stabbed in the darkness. She was unique, the only child of two disparate kindred; people came hundreds of miles to see her. The city of Dannis meant nothing if she could not enjoy it, to fly up its towers, swim its depths and feel as if she had touched the world. She felt no need to change now.

She couldn’t go forward, couldn’t go back. Calis would never let her get away again, and memories of the tyrant promising retribution sent a shudder up her spine. They had been told to hurt her as much as necessary.

Breathing out a whimper, she started into Taliria again.

At first, it seemed even this would be out of reach. Then, she noticed signs – marked with scratch-scrawl she assumed was writing, but also showing small pictures. Clasped hands were clearly in prayer, and she followed those.

The avenues made it difficult to hide. She clutched to the sides of buildings and edged along, keeping her head bent. The advancing darkness helped: few people looked to the shadows, and none really saw. She smelled a rising odor, cloying and clamorous: burnt offerings from the temples.

Which one belonged to Vidaneus? The little pictures did not help. She was so absorbed in her dilemma, she missed the figure crossing the courtyard until it spoke.

“May I help you?”

Vri jerked, eyes wide on the woman in white. A priestess, she supposed. She waited for the screams, to be chased back to the lower city. “Where is Vidaneus?” she whispered.

The priestess seemed disquieted, but she smiled. “This way, child,” she said, turning. “Tell me if I walk too fast.”

Vri was weary and starving, but no guide could have gone too fast. Relieved – resigned – anticipating despite it – she followed. They walked across white marble courtyards into a building whose walls were covered with carvings of humans.

The priestess paused before a door, opening it. “The gods be with you, child.”

“And with you,” Vri said, though she had no idea what good that would do. She oozed inside.

The chamber had white walls and a floor tiled with footprints. Four pillars stood about the center, each shaped like a man and woman in different stages of life and relations to each other: young lovers, a mother with her child and a pair shaking hands. On three sides were simple altars, and in between … the fountain, so white as to make the rest of the room seem dim, with water flowing over its many tiers and down an archway in the middle.

Vri advanced tentatively, aware she could still turn … take her chances, hope for the best. The water entranced her, a promise that had brought her to Taliria … and still had power, even though she no longer felt she must drink of it or remain a monster. The escape it offered was different now – and she was not sure she wanted it.

She glanced up, briefly, anxiously. If this god was looking on, would he be offended by her reluctance? She decided she did not care. He had not done anything for her yet.

Perhaps there was no need. She wanted so badly to see Dannis as she was, wings and fins, and she had heard no sign of pursuit since approaching the temples … she pivoted on her tail.

“… sure about that?” a voice asked. “She’s very distinctive. Half harpy, half merwoman …”

Calis! Vri felt a shock. They were here, they had found her, and there was no way out. Without thinking, she plunged through the fountain.

***

Cold, hot, salty, sweet – freshwater, seawater, summer rain and shavings from icicles. The fountain poured over Vri, sluicing to the bone. She spread out her wings under the waters. She opened her mouth instinctively to breathe, and was surprised when her gills fluttered, taking in air.

Then she had no gills.

Coughing, sputtering, stunned as her body stung, she tumbled out of the fountain. She landed on her back and yelped as her head – uncushioned by wings – smacked on stone. It felt as if centipedes crawled across her skin, and their sticky feet peeled away layers of her.

When she moved to sit up, her tail went in two directions – no, it wasn’t a tail. She stared in fascination at the pearly limbs, flexing them. She reached out to grab the fountain rim.

She had more trouble than she had expected grabbing on with the new spindly hooks. Once upright, she paused to examine her fingers and remembered all the things she had seen humans do with them. She was surprised to find this did not excite her. If anything, it annoyed her, all the adaptations she would have to unlearn and the intricacies that would replace them. How, among all the unnecessary uses for hands, would she find the interesting ones?

Time to be practical, though Vri wanted to dwell on this bittersweet change. She could not go out into the city like this: she knew enough to realize a naked woman would attract almost as much attention as a beast. Hastily, she pulled the altar-cloth off one stone and draped it around herself. Stuffing, twisting and pulling, she made a rough garment.

She wobbled, dizzy with her bipedal height. She made her way out of the temple, clutching the fabric. Calis spoke to a plump priest, his impatience strident. He half-turned as she passed.

“Miss!” he called. “Can you help me?”

Vri hesitated – but what fear did she have? She turned her face to his, silently defiant, secure in the anonymity of this average form.

Calis met her eyes, lips parting; he mouthed, ‘blue pearls’ and stared. “Vri?” His voice was wondering, soft. She had seen the look in his eyes: it passed between couples strolling the zoo, but never so sudden or so stunned by the realization. Ironic, she thought, that he had pitied her when she was the only one of her kind, but now that she was one of countless, he found her beautiful.

She regretted this; she wished he could have liked her as the artist had. “Tell the warden you failed, Calis,” she said. “I can’t go into a cage like this.” She turned, not wanting to hear his response.

“Vri!” he shouted. “We need to talk.” She heard him scramble after her, and hesitated. Under other circumstances, it would have been nice to have a traveling companion – someone like him. But not one who admired her only after this change. She pushed ahead.

A human forest loomed around the bend, inviting her into their midst. It was that simple: seeing a familiar arrangement of limbs and a face, they greeted her as one of their own, with polite remarks about the weather and cordial nods.

Vri did not understand humans and was not sure she wanted to, but it was a mystery she could no longer avoid. For all the changes, she was still a creature of two opposing elements: human in appearance and beast at heart. She knew adjusting to the two would be more difficult than living divided between water and sky.

She was already gaining some agility in this new form. She could approach a ship, offer to do menial tasks, and make her way … wherever. There was still a world out there for her, fresh and enigmatic – even if she went into it the same as thousands of humans before.

The houses opened, and Vri saw the river in the distance. She longed to dive in, be lost with a flick of her tail … no longer possible. With a last mourning dove murmur, she melted into the crowds.


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About the Author

Lindsey Duncan is a life-long writer and professional Celtic harp performer, with short fiction and poetry in numerous speculative fiction publications. She feels that music and language are inextricably linked. She lives, performs and teaches harp in Cincinnati, Ohio. She can be found on the web at http://www.LindseyDuncan.com/writing.htm.

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