The poison tides came in one burnt evening in late summer, and everybody knew it was time for the princess to be sacrificed.
Princess Mede knew it as well. She had learned at her old Nurse’s knee to count the seconds of summer as they slipped by, to measure the growing chill in the air until the day arrived when the tide rushed on the shore like an invading army, black as ink and filled with stinking debris. Those who dared go down onto the black and ruined beach reported seeing things as strange and disparate as swathes of rotted silk, dead dogs with bloated bellies and dolls’ heads. The waters brought death to everything they touched.
The princess had to be sacrificed or the tides would keep coming and the harvest would be lost.
Mede was quite looking forward to it. She’d never been sacrificed before.
On the morning of the day when she was due to be sacrificed, Mede almost forgot all about it. She wasn’t used to being the princess. She’d always beena princess, of course. Her parents were the king and queen, she lived in the palace and Nurse called her ‘Your Highness’ in an accusing tone whenever she caught Mede daydreaming.
Her sister Genia had always been the princess, the one who people meant when they said ‘our princess.’ The courtiers dressed up in hunting robes and hid in the gardens around the palace in order to catch a glimpse of Genia without blinds and folding fans in the way. Genia was effortlessly gracious, wrote flawless poetry on blossom-white paper and had a sad, noble beauty that people always remembered. They carried a picture of her face away in their minds and woke to thoughts of beauty in the night, so she was far more beautiful in memory than in reality.
Mede was younger and much less impressive, which meant she was free to spend her time in the gardens without many people asking for her. She sometimes resented Genia and sometimes admired her, and usually loved her. Now Genia was in a far country married to a king rich and important enough to deserve her beauty, Mede missed her.
As a child she’d dreamed of miraculously becoming more important than her sister, of being the princess who unveiled and rode in parades. Now she was that princess, and the parades bored her.
Mede was able to lose all Genia’s former ladies-in-waiting and escape over the crest of one green hill. She was pruning a hedge when she looked up through the tiny leaves, veiling her vision like soft green lace, and in the distance saw the sun blazing high over the sea. That was when she remembered she was due to be sacrificed that afternoon.
She picked up her skirts and ran, worried that she was going to be late, and Nurse told her off as she scrambled into her golden gown. The ceremonial dress was gold-embroidered and the iridescent sleeves fell to her feet in layers that gleamed with all the colors inside a seashell. It did not flow over her body as it had over Genia’s but stayed in stiff folds, as if it was not used to her and could not get comfortable.
When it was time to go Nurse was still trying to put her hair up in the elaborate gold combs without wisps escaping. Mede was trying to remember everything Genia had told her about the ceremony.
It wasn’t meant to be very difficult. Her father would say the ceremonial words, offering his virgin daughter as a living sacrifice to the sea. All Mede had to do was agree and climb into the boat, then wait to be drifted back to shore. It was just a symbolic offering and for some reason it made the poison tides stop. It was nothing.
It was the first useful thing Mede had been asked to do for her country, a chance to be a real princess. And she was already late.
Everyone was gathered at the harbor, wearing bright clothes and standing solemn as if they were in the temple. Her father looked relieved when she appeared and her mother gave her a kind smile directed slightly to one side, as if Genia was still standing next to Mede and she felt she should divide her smiles equally.
Mede stood between her parents and smiled around at her people. They filed past her one by one, acting as witnesses. An old woman Mede bought seeds from gave her a kiss.
“Bless your sweet face,” she said.
Mede crushed down the uneasy urge to hide behind her fan and smiled for the crowd.
The vague idea she had of her people coalesced into the sight of these faces, some familiar, all approving. Beyond them the sea stretched in a glittering sheet of light. The sun made her gown sparkle so it looked like she was wearing a piece of the sea.
Her father took the golden cord and wrapped it around her wrists, tying them tight.
“In the sight of my people and for the love of my land, I hereby commit our princess to the sea.”
He gave her bound hands a reassuring shake, teeth gleaming in his beard, a private smile. As he continued the ceremony Nurse took a firm grip on Mede’s shoulders and corrected her posture as she had done a thousand times.
“Remember you’re a princess,” she said. “Do this with a little grace.”
Her father turned to her again. “My daughter, do you go a willing sacrifice into the sea?”
Mede held her bound hands out to the people and bowed her head. “I do.”
Her mother bent close, perfume sweet and breath warm against Mede’s face. “You’ll be home before teatime, my darling.”
Her father led her to the boat and helped her lie down on the bottom, head fitted inside the curved prow. The shape of the boat cradled her, the planks sun-warmed and time-worn beneath her. She felt the surge of the waves beneath the boat and the impact as it was launched.
She heard the cheers of her people like music or the sound of bells, distant already, the sound rising clear into the sky.
Then there was nothing but the shushing noise of waves as they lapped the small boat. Mede lifted her head, tried to snatch a last look at the harbor and home, but all she saw was the dazzling movement of light on water. She rested her head back against the bottom of the boat, closing her eyes. Afterimages of that light lingered in buttery streaks against the blackness behind her eyelids.
She crossed her hands over her breast and let it all wash over her, the light of the sun, the rocking of her boat and the sound of the sea all coming together in one great rush of sensation. She turned her head, resting her cheek against the warm wood at the bottom of the boat, and was lulled into drowsiness by the peace and the thought of going home having achieved something, served her people, been a true princess. Like Genia.
Everything was calm.
Mede woke and everything was chaos.
She sat bolt upright and grabbed for the side of the boat, feeling the lurch and hearing the rasp of the bottom against rocks. She’d woken sick and breathless, she must have been shocked out of sleep when the boat hit—
Splinters pierced her palms as she clung to the side, the wind freezing and the sea spray stinging her eyes. The sound of the waves had become a threatening roar and she could see nothing.
Her hair was in her face, a sodden veil that obscured the world. She blinked frantically, trying to focus, but then she felt the crunch of the helm against stone, felt the terrible tip of the boat and knew that it was too far gone.
The boat flipped and she hit the water with a smack, knowing nothing but icy shock for a moment before she realized that she was not drowning but on her hands and knees among the rocks.
The sea was stinking and the water felt oily, clotted with filth. Disgust dragged her up, so she was on her feet and staggering onto dry land before she could see.
Mede splashed through the water and stumbled onto dry land. Only when her knees buckled did she realize she had torn them open on the rocks earlier. She staggered but stayed on her feet and pushed the hair out of her eyes. Her hands stung as she did so and she stared down at them: the first thing she saw in this strange land was her own blood.
The rocks must have ripped the skin off her palms too. She curled her fingers over the open wounds and stared around. For a moment all she could see was blackness. Then she blinked a few times and began to piece the nightmarish fragments she could make out into some kind of sense.
The heaving darkness behind her was the sea and the darkness filled with pale wisps like ghosts torn to shreds must be the sky. In front of her loomed a still and unrelieved darkness. For a moment she took it for cliffs, but the shapes were wrong.
They were buildings. No matter where she had washed up, on what filthy poisoned shore, there must be some help to be found.
Mede strode forward and felt one of her wet, trailing sleeves catch on something. She did not stop to wrestle with the material, just let it rip away. The silk unraveled layer by layer past her elbow, leaving one arm naked, filthy and bleeding. She shivered in the cold and strode forward, and thought grimly that nobody would ever believe she was a princess.
The wind ceased howling as soon as she left the shore. Mede found herself on a broken road, breathing dead air.
The air smelled as horrible as the water, stinking as if the whole city was dead.
The city looked dead. The curving road looked like a smile full of broken teeth. Mede stumbled through the gaps and gazed desperately into every window she passed. They were all dark. There was no sign of light or movement in the entire city.
The buildings were porous stone, covered in a screen of slick black filth until they looked like they were made of rotting mushrooms. The silence seemed to lend the foul air a dense quality: Mede found it hard to take proper breaths, and even harder to see why she kept walking through these streets.
There was no hope to be found here. Nobody could live in this city. She was walking through a wasteland.
She did not turn around because there was nowhere to go but back into the sea. These deserted, crumbling buildings were no good to her, but up ahead there were the looming dark walls of a palace.
It was nothing like the palace back home, no graceful structure with curving roofs and surrounding gardens. It was a vast pyramid-like mass squatting like a giant black toad in the ruined city. The walls were covered in the same patina of dirt as the other buildings, but they were whole and promised shelter. She could rest there until morning came.
The gates to the palace were open. One gate was so open it was lying on the ground, half-hidden beneath the enveloping dirt. As Mede walked in she stood on it and the iron was so rusted that it crunched into something like ash beneath her feet.
The door to the palace was open too. It was a long narrow rectangle that made her think of a coffin.
She stepped inside and was engulfed by the stench of death.
The domed hall of the palace and the wide staircase might have been impressive once, but now it was all covered with the same greasy filth as everything outside. Now the hall looked like a dark cavern and the staircase like a pile of blackened bones.
All around her was that terrible smell, as if she was in the belly of some dead beast.
Mede touched her face and felt an unpleasant layer of coolness on her skin. The stone of this city was corrupt: what would happen to flesh and blood in this stinking air?
In that air a sound rang out, making Mede spin and almost fall. She clenched her fists and told herself not to be stupid. A sound was a good thing. It meant there might be help, even here.
The noise rose from a dark opening which Mede looked at and thoughtvault, and then told herself no, cellar.
The steps down to the cellar were dark and narrow. She tried to go down carefully, but when she missed her footing and grabbed at the wall to support herself her hands slid and found no purchase on the stone. She landed on her face in wet rubble, pulled herself up on her hands and knees and saw a rat scurrying away under a pile of fallen rafters and stones.
A rat. Mede gave a dry little laugh, strangled as soon as born.
“So,” she said aloud. “You and I are the only ones alive in this place.”
“That’s not quite true,” said a voice behind her.
Mede scrambled to sit up, to turn and see who was speaking, and her movement must have startled the rat. It streaked out of its hiding place and Mede saw its left side for the first time: saw the fur hanging like an open coat to show a flash of bone, the empty twisted blackness where an eye should have been.
The voice was dark and low, like polluted water running underground.
It said: “The rat’s not alive.”
Mede reached out in the oily water and grabbed a rafter. She stood with the rotten log grasped in both hands, and turned ready to swing.
He was standing at the bottom of the stairs.
When he moved she fled, running through the water to the wall. She braced her back against the stone and told herself she’d moved because she couldn’t leave herself unprotected on all sides.
The real reason was that she couldn’t bear for him to come any closer.
He moved in a terrible, liquid way, as if he no longer had muscles and sinews. He reminded her of an eel winding through mud.
He was more or less the shape of a boy, though all the details were wrong.
With every smooth, boneless step he took towards her, the smell of corruption grew stronger. She wanted to be sick, and then cry.
“You’re planning to hit me?” he asked softly.
Mede tried to sound braver than she felt. “Not if you leave me alone!”
“So I’ll leave you alone,” the monster said. “Then what?”
He sounded mildly curious. Mede swallowed, tasting bitterness.
“I don’t—I don’t understand.”
“You’ll be alone,” the monster said. “The storm will go on. There will be no way home. We’re all being quiet for you now, but once I tell them you won’t even speak to me my people will begin to stir. You will sit in this cellar alone and alive, listening to the sounds of the dead moving among you. No food grows in a dead land. You’ll starve here. Maybe you will go mad before you die. If I leave you alone.”
She thought she might go mad if he didn’t leave, that she might prefer to die alone rather than look at his face for another second.
He was talking sense, though. Even coming from the lips of a monster in a nightmare city, Mede could appreciate that.
“If you don’t?” she asked. “Then what happens?”
He coughed, a terrible sound that made her think of the possibility of—things wriggling, dislodged, in his lungs.
“Listen to what I have to say. Then the storm will pass and you can go home.”
“How do I know you’re not lying?” she whispered.
“I don’t lie!” he shouted, storming towards her, and his hideous eel-like grace and every dead, discolored detail of his face filled her vision, hit her like a punch to the stomach, knocked her down so she was crouching, sick and trembling, in that cold water.
She was still holding onto the rafter. She’d hit him if he tried to grab her, she thought with a kind of mad calm. She’d hit him and hit him until he was dead twice over.
She waited for the monster to try.
The monster said, a little awkwardly: “I’m—sorry.”
Mede froze, staring at the greenish black color of the hand at her eye level. Rotted lace hung across the back, like an old wet spiderweb.
“I lost my temper. Doing this again… It’s not your fault.”
“I want to go home,” Mede said, very low.
He sounded angry again, though trying to control it, as he answered: “You will.”
“Then I’ll,” Mede swallowed. “I’ll listen to what you have to say. I’ll—trust you.”
“You can,” the monster told her almost gently. “Your sister came back every time, didn’t she?”
All the breath left Mede in one quick, shocked gasp.
“Genia! She never said—”
“She wouldn’t have.”
The monster offered Mede his horrible hand. It was so clearly a courtier’s gesture, a gentleman ready to help a lady to her feet, that Mede was more startled than horrified. She stared at him with her mouth open and he snatched his hand away.
He stepped back, and she thought that was truly gentlemanly. He could see she did not want to be close to him and he was obeying her wishes without a word or a look of reproach.
Mede hesitated, then uncurled her stiff fingers from around the rafter and let it slip away into the water. She rose and stood unarmed before the monster.
“Come with me,” he said.
The monster led her into the domed hall and then up a winding staircase. There was an iron railing fixed in the stone wall that might once have been beautiful, a rendering of an iron vine trailing tiny iron flowers, but now it was blackened and parts were missing. Mede did not touch it. She just took care as she climbed.
Looking at the monster’s back was much better than looking at his face. One shoulder was higher than another and his hair hung in lank damp locks, but that wasn’t so bad. If it hadn’t been for the smell, she could have pretended he was alive.
“What’s your name?”
“Mede,” she said cautiously.
“That’s a nickname like Genia. Is it short for Medea or Andromeda?”
Mede actually had forty-seven names inscribed on a scroll in carmine and gold. She tried to visualize it, but it had never seemed very real to her. She did not need a piece of paper to tell her what her name was.
“I don’t know. Does it matter?”
“It might,” the monster said quietly. “The names belong to very different stories.”
Mede did not care about stories. She cared about her sister.
“Genia,” she said hesitantly. “Why would she not have warned me?”
“Because she is ashamed of her country and ashamed of herself,” the monster answered.
“Because she knows why the poison tides come in.”
They reached the top of the stairs and Mede found herself facing a huge window. Outside the barren lands spread black and ruined before her sight, the city of roads like shattered teeth and broken towers like stumps where limbs should have been. The lands beyond might once have been fields and were now a putrid swamp.
She clung to the crumbling windowsill. “What happened?”
Mede was desperate enough to look directly at the monster. He was standing to one side in the shadows, looking out the window. His head was slightly bowed, his face in profile: it was not so bad.
“There was war between our countries, once,” he said. “We were alive then, and your country was different too, young and fierce. It was all—so long ago. I don’t remember what it was about. All I remember is that both our countries were weak and ruined by war, and there seemed no way for either side to win.”
He inclined his head and Mede was shocked again by how courtly the gesture was. She might have been standing on a palace balcony with a noble who knew her well enough to make his ‘Shall we go?’ a silent question.
She went with him down a long gallery, the walls lined with frames that seemed at first to contain dark mirrors.
On closer inspection, they were portraits. This was a royal gallery, like a sad ghost of the one at home. Mede studied the pictures as they passed rather than looking out the windows. She was dreading the end of the story.
The monster did not seem eager to continue, either. He stopped and looked at the picture she was looking at. It might have felt like she was a guest being shown around a strange palace, if she had shut her eyes.
She glanced at his shoulder, not able to force her gaze up to his face, and nodded at him.
“A peace treaty was drawn up,” he said softly. “A marriage was arranged.”
Mede had expected an account of a cataclysmic battle, the blood-soaked conclusion to the story. She almost laughed with relief.
“Oh, a marriage!”
The monster’s voice sounded a little startled by her laugh, a little relaxed by it. “Yes, between the crown prince of my land and the eldest princess of yours. The princess was very beautiful,” he added, as if wishing to be fair.
It was a small thing: that the story was turning out well, that the monster was prepared to be pleasant, but it felt as if someone had opened a door a chink and let light in on utter darkness.
Mede was so glad she felt a little silly.
“What was the prince like?”
“Oh.” It was strange hearing a monster laugh. “He wasn’t so bad.”
She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye and saw him nod towards the picture before them. Mede examined it more carefully and saw that it was a young man.
The painting wore a veneer of filth and a tracery of fine lines, but under the veil of time and decay she was just able to make out a face.
He had shadowy eyes and rather a sweet smile. The artist must have been good, Mede thought, to have captured a face that usually kept its secrets in an unguarded moment and left an impression of how fleeting that moment had been. The details of the scene were lost, but the prince seemed to be striding long-legged through a green wood with a peregrine falcon on his wrist. The falcon’s wings were spread open, ready to fly, and the prince’s long dark hair had fallen curved across his face, lifting in a long-gone wind as if it was a wing too.
“He wasn’t so bad,” Mede agreed. “So what came next? Tell me what happened to the prince.”
The monster leaned in a little too close. He was not near enough to be inappropriate for a gentleman but too close for a monster, his cold cheek almost brushing hers and sending shocks of horror down her spine.
There was no more laughter between them now. He whispered in her ear, his voice chilly and terribly gentle, so low it seemed intimate. It gave her the feeling of a dead hand stroking her hair: it tied her stomach in knots.
“Should I?” the monster murmured caressingly. “Do you really want to know?”
Mede looked up at him in fear, and knew.
It was some trick of dim light or moving shadow cast by the tattered, tossing clouds in the stormy sky. It smoothed the monster’s straggling hair and his rough skin, cast a faint gleam on his dull dead eyes. Under the puffy, discolored skin she could make out high cheekbones, and a look: all hope lost and all secrets kept. She recognized a certain tilt to his unsmiling mouth, the curve of his face.
“Oh no,” Mede pleaded.
“Oh yes,” said the prince.
Mede turned away from the picture and the monster, leaned against the stone wall and swallowed a few times, her throat aching with no way to ease it. She knew what she should have realized from the start, that the monster’s story could have no happy ending.
“The princess,” she said, her mouth dry. “What happened to the princess?”
“Come. I’ll show you.”
Mede looked around and saw he had stepped back all the way across the room, and pushed open a door. A dark flight of steps lay beyond it.
He gestured toward the door and she was surprised for a moment without knowing why. Then it came to her: a gentleman would have held the door for her and ushered her through. He had offered her his hand in the cellar, shown her into the gallery. She had come to expect he would act like a gentleman.
He obviously knew what a violent contrast his portrait presented. He’d seen the knowledge strike her like a blow.
Like a gentleman, he was holding aloof so as not to distress her further.
Mede looked at him directly, and did not look away. He was staring at the floor and there was no light softening his face, but she kept looking and pieced together the fragments of what he had been: a knife-bridge nose, hooded eyelids. He’d been well-made once, and was still tall.
Pity went through her like a blade, scything away horror.
“Won’t you,” she said, the words tumbling suddenly out of her mouth. “Won’t you give me your arm?”
His eyes snapped up to her face. She thrust out her hand abruptly, before she could lose her nerve under that dead gaze, and gave him an encouraging nod.
“If you please,” she said breathlessly.
He straightened up and smiled at her, the smile from the portrait undimmed by horror or the years. It was slow and bright, a little crooked, tentative more than shy. It lit up his face like sunlight turning a ruined city to gold.
“Of course, my lady,” said the prince.
He made her a sweeping bow and offered her his arm. She took it at once, not allowing herself to hesitate, and held it tightly. She refused to let herself flinch.
It was not like touching living flesh, but his shoulder was a broad solid support behind hers.
There was comfort as well as terror in this.
They climbed the stairs of the tower together.
At the top of the tower there was a room, and in the room there was a bed, and on the bed there was a princess.
The room was high above the dead city and untouched by its corruption. The walls were white and softly curved: pearly, and the bed was draped with gauze and silk flowers. It was a boudoir for a royal bride, and amid the veils and roses the royal bride lay sleeping.
The dust of years was grey on her face. There would be no waking from this sleep.
“She looks like—my sister,” Mede whispered.
The prince moved to the window, gazing out at his city. He didn’t seem much interested in the dead princess. Of course, he would have had his chance to look his fill at her.
“The heralds said she was beautiful,” he remarked, and Mede understood him a little better.
The indifferent lounging against the window was about as real as his careless stride towards her in the cellar. His shoulders were hunched in a little, his face averted because he did not want to look at the princess.
This mattered to him.
“I was happy to hear it. I was—nervous about the wedding, about being tied to someone who had been brought up to hate my people, but I liked the idea of a beautiful barbarian princess.”
The short, cynical laugh was obviously forced. “I wasn’t half as nervous as I should have been.”
“What happened?” Mede asked. “Tell me the end of the story.”
The prince slanted a look over his shoulder at her, secretive and almost amused. She could not tell if there was any possibility of sympathy in that look.
“Oh, like all good stories, it ends with a wedding.”
“Oh, you—you married her?” Mede said. “Oh.”
The prince hesitated, and then used her name for the first time. “Yes, Mede. I married her.
“I said that she would be part of my country and that watching over her would be the duty of everyone in the land, and my duty most of all. She promised she would be part of my country and that as she prospered or failed, so would the land. She kept her promise. We went up to our wedding bower and—I remember the precise moment. My people were cheering outside the window. There was blossom in the air. She was lying on the bed. I was—unlacing my shirt. She said a spell. She damned herself and my country with her. She killed herself and left my people, dead, to watch over her, dead. She spoke words I did not understand and suddenly everything was death. And since then, every day, everything has been death. Nothing has ever changed.”
Mede looked out at his city of the dead and then back at the princess’s still, lovely face.
Genia had returned from her first sacrifice more beautiful than ever, as if her beauty had been through a fire of pain and come out tempered into something finer. Mede thought she understood that now.
“We sent our princess to destroy your people,” she said slowly.
The prince inclined his head. “I used to hate you all for that. But it was all so long ago. Your country was different, then. It’s beautiful now, isn’t it?”
Mede thought of the light through the leaves in her garden.
“It’s beautiful. But the poison tides still come.”
“Everything changes in time,” said the prince. “Everything but us.”
“Because of us,” said Mede. “And every year the tide comes from your country to mine to—to claim a sacrifice who will hear the story and bear the shame for her people?”
The prince held her gaze in silence and, at last, shook his head.
“Why would we need a princess as an audience? The tides come to claim a promise. They come to claim me a true bride.”
Mede stared at his face, feeling horror flood her as if she was seeing it for the first time.
“You?” she whispered. “A bride?”
“Me,” the prince whispered back, in a faint terrified voice that was a bitter mockery of hers.
Then he looked down, the corner of his mouth turning down too. “I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, it’s not—” Mede began, and stopped. Her only alternatives were to insult him or lie.
“What use would a bride be?”
The prince coughed, a wet rasping sound that made her uneasily aware of all the decay within him. She wanted to laugh at the sheer macabre idea of it, a bride, for something like him. She wanted to cry.
“The theory is that a true bride would break the spell. Make these dry bones live,” said the prince, and stared at his slimy cuffs. “Or make sure the city sinks under the waves and never rises again.”
“Those are very different things!”
“I don’t know. Life or death. Either one would be an answer.”
“It would be a help if you knew which one was the r-right answer!”
The prince gave her a single look. There was a quality of stillness about him, like one of the artificial pools in her garden. She hung lanterns over those pools, and nothing living ever disturbed the smooth bright surface of the waters.
His look held her still too.
“Why?” he asked. “Would you be willing, if you knew which it would be? Every year the tides come to you, and a princess comes to us, and every year a princess turns away.”
“My sister,” Mede said. “She always did the right thing.”
“She always said the right thing,” the prince said. “She looked the part, but she couldn’t play it. She was just like all the others: she came, and she saw, and she did nothing!”
“Have you,” she started, and her voice cracked and broke on her dry tongue. “Have you ever been tempted to keep one by force?”
“Yes,” murmured the prince.
His voice was soft, at a safe remove, but in one swift terrible movement he came toward her. He seemed to be faster than sound for an instant, so his voice was still pleasant and distant while his face was inches from hers and his cold hand was clamped on her wrist.
“We have been betrayed. We have been doomed to a rotting eternity. And every year I have to watch girls like your sister turn away!” The prince’s eyes burned: they almost looked alive.
“So yes,” he whispered. “I’ve been tempted.”
His grip on her wrist tightened. She felt the chill of his fingers deep in her bone. She wondered, thought balanced on the edge of panic, what he was going to do to her.
He lifted her trapped hand and bowed his head over it. “I do not have much. But I like to think I have some honor left.”
He released her wrist and stepped back.
Mede took a faltering step towards him, then bowed from the waist. “I beg your pardon!”
“I’m sorry,” the prince said. “You have been very courteous to me. It was unforgivable of me to scare you.”
They stood for a moment silent and apart. Mede looked at the prince and thought about her sister, Genia the beautiful and noble, the one true princess. She had heard his story and turned away.
A princess of Mede’s own country had sworn an oath and broken it, and the poison tide came to them because of that. The tide would keep coming, tainting their land with death and dishonor every year. She thought of her beautiful serene country, of her rolling hills and perfectly designed gardens. The evening glory was dying in her garden now, but there would be firebushes throwing out blazing colors soon.
Her country would never be free of shame because no princess would be true. No princess would make a real sacrifice.
“You can go home now,” the prince said. “The storm is dying. The boat will be waiting.”
Mede thought of the calm safe promise of harbor and home, and thought she understood Genia. All she had to do was walk away. Nobody would ever know, except her and the dead.
Everyone would welcome her home and tell her she had done her duty.
It would be a lie, though.
“Wait,” Mede said, and found her voice was too shaky to go on. She felt as if she was trying to stand up in her boat during a storm, already dangerously unsteady and about to be knocked off her feet and hurled into dark waters. She took a deep breath and tried to find a calm center, a place in the storm of her own fear where she could stand and think.
There was no such place. Her voice was still wobbly when she went on: “I haven’t given you an answer.”
The quality of the prince’s silence changed. It had been the quiet of obviously familiar despair, but suddenly there was no possibility of gentleness about him. His body was tense, his gaze hooded and intent.
“The poison tides would never come again. And we—we might live.”
The prince nodded once, carefully as if she was a wild animal who might bolt at a sudden word.
Mede took a deep breath of bitter air.
“Then for the love and duty I owe my land, I come to you a willing s-sacrifice.”
She had meant to sound so dignified and resolute. She hated herself a little for the way her voice trembled on that last word.
The prince hesitated, hair fallen in his face, and she saw his lowered eyelids, heard the quick intake of breath and realized he was shy. She moved towards him before she remembered he was a monster.
“You could go now,” he said, speaking very quickly. “You could go and live and—you could come back next year. You’re very young. You don’t have to do this now.”
The idea of going home was like a drop of honey spilled on her tongue, filling her mouth with sweetness and her mind with longing. She closed her eyes for a moment and imagined her garden.
“If I turn away once,” she said, very low. “I won’t come back.”
Mede thought of her sister’s sad face. Perhaps Genia had meant to return and do the right thing.
She opened her eyes and the vision of her garden was lost. The monster’s face was before her. She thrust out both her hands.
“I am for you,” she said. “Tell me what I have to do.”
The monster did not touch her, but there was a look on his face that she thought might mean he would have liked to.
“Wait,” he said, and turned away.
He walked towards the bridal bed where his sleeping princess lay and Mede watched with a strange feeling in her chest she could not quite make sense of. Surely it was impossible to be jealous of the dead, and ridiculous to be jealous about the dead.
The prince stooped over the bed, brushing back a tress from the princess’s face gently, as if he was afraid she might wake. He slid the ring from her finger as he touched her lips with his own. Once he had taken the kiss and the ring he drew back just a fraction and watched her as if at some time, long after death, bitterness had suffered a sea change into something painful and patient.
Under the weight of their stares the princess crumbled to dust. Soon all that was left of her beauty was the dull shine of dust on her bridal bed and the gleam of a ring in the prince’s dead hand.
There were three cups on the end of the bed. The prince picked up the tiny tray and brought it to her. There had probably been sake in these cups once, but now there was nothing but dust.
There would be no priest to perform a purifying ritual for them, shaking his staff over all present. There would be no chance to present offerings to the sacred tree. It was just the two of them in this dead city. It felt like a nightmare of two children pretending to get married.
She pretended to drink three times from each cup, and so did he. The taste of dust clung to her lips.
The tips of their fingers almost touched reaching for the cups, but not quite.
She held herself braced for his touch, feeling like a soldier going into battle, determined not to betray her country. A soldier should not show fear. A bride must not show disgust.
She expected his skin to be as slimy as the castle walls but his hands were dry, if rough. His touch felt as impersonal as the slide of the metal ring onto her finger.
She crooked her finger to keep it on and looked up to find him still bowed over her, and felt a jolt in her chest when she realized what was about to happen.
When he touched her again, it did not feel impersonal. He held her arm where it was covered with cloth, still being a gentleman, and the fact she could rely on him to be courteous made her relax. She put her hand on his shoulder, feeling her face grow a little hot. She had never been this close to a man not related to her before.
He lowered his head very slowly and she knew he was trying to be polite, that he pitied her and she pitied him too. She thought the mutual pity had formed a connection between them, had become warm enough to be called sympathy. She turned her face up to his and met his lips, shivering at the thought of the monster stalking her in the cellar, the prince smiling in his picture frame, the smell of corruption in her nostrils and the comfort of his supporting touch on the dark stairs to this room. And this touch, now.
He did not have to breathe, but she did. She came to the realization that she needed air at the same time that she realized that her arms were around his neck.
She stepped away quickly. He did not try to stop her.
“Is that—all?” she asked. She could not look at him, this time out of shyness rather than horror. “Are we—”
“I think so,” the prince replied, and hastily added: “Thank you.”
She had never heard him sound so young. It made her smile.
She stopped smiling as she asked: “When will we know if—what’s going to happen?”
“Sunrise,” the prince said. “It shouldn’t be long.”
“Oh,” said Mede.
She remembered Nurse’s stories of monsters and brides and curses. It occurred to her that these stories never mentioned a long wait, or the awkwardness of being newly married to someone very strange.
Mede did not feel entirely steady on her legs, so she went and sat on the bridal bed. She froze amid dust and lace when she thought of how that must look.
He was still a gentleman. He sat on a chair by the bed, and they looked at each other a little desperately. Looking at him from a distance and dispassionately, she could not quite believe what she had done.
She looked down at the embroidery on the bed, and curled the fingers that had clasped his neck into her palm.
“What things did you like to do when you were…” she began.
The question seemed ridiculous, but she had to ask. She’d married him, after all, and if everything went well the country would be healed and he would be beautiful and what, oh, what would they talk about?
“I had a falcon,” the prince said slowly, as if trying to remember. “I liked to go hunting. Not to go hunting—not to kill—but to have some time on my own, to be quiet. If—I could show you how to carry a falcon on your wrist.”
Mede’s hand was restless on the embroidered sheets, moving across the silk without her own permission.
“I like gardening,” she said. “If I’d been a man and not a princess, a master gardener told me, I could have been apprenticed and designed my own. I know the names of every plant in my garden.”
The prince saw what she was trying to do. He reached out and lightly took her hand.
“You might like to help rebuild the gardens here,” he said. “We could go out to be on our own. You could teach me all the names.”
Mede smiled without looking up. “I might like to carry a falcon on my wrist.”
He told her, his voice still slow with the effort of recollection but becoming faster and more certain, about takagiri and tiercels. She told him about the crape myrtles still flowering at home, about how she always looked forward to winter and plum blossoms. They held on to each other’s hands and she had the thought, small and hopeful as a blossom in winter, that there might be a happy ending to this story after all.
The first pale fingers of the rising sun came through the window as they were talking, and Mede looked up at his face.
She was braced to see someone she did not know, to see the prince from the portrait, and for a moment she was relieved to see her prince’s familiar face. Then she realized what that meant.
They held hands more tightly than before as they looked out of the window at the rising waters. The sunrise was tinting the waves and the black ruins of the city were transformed under the glittering ocean: the city was turning into gold.
The city would lie at the bottom of the sea forever now, all the nightmares washed away. The dead would become pearly bones and the palace would be a shadowed cavern full of treasures and mysteries. The poison tides would never come again.
Mede was so scared.
“Your parents,” she whispered, thinking of her own parents, of leaving the harbor and her mother telling her she would be home in time for tea. “Do you want to say goodbye to them?”
Her prince’s voice did not waver. It stayed to the end a gentleman’s voice, promising protection and keeping his promise.
“Do you think I would leave you here alone?”
“No. Thank you,” she murmured, her ears full of the whispering of the waves, her eyes almost blinded by gold.
This was being a princess: paying the price of someone else’s treachery, making the best of a strange marriage, going down with a city.
Remember you’re a princess, said Nurse’s voice in her mind. Do this with a little grace.
Mede reached out and took hold of her prince’s arm, tugged him towards her and onto the bed. She sat leaning against him for a moment, breathing in and finding a moment of peace. She could accept this.
She spoke quietly, her voice almost drowned by the sound of the sea.
“It’s our wedding day,” she said. “Kiss me again.”
Sarah Rees Brennan is the author of the acclaimed Demon’s Lexicontrilogy, which concludes with The Demon’s Surrender in 2011. She was born and raised in Ireland by the sea, where her teachers valiantly tried to make her fluent in Irish (she wants you to know it’s not called Gaelic), but she chose to read books under her desk in class instead. After living briefly in New York and doing a creative writing MA and library work in Surrey, England, she has returned to Dublin, Ireland, to write. Her Irish is still woeful, but she feels the books under the desk were worth it.