by Catherynne M. Valente
III: The Sons of Veles
I woke when the sea soaked my feet through. Not all at once — Caorle was as wet as Venice had been, when the salt–foam came laughing against the church–steps. When the water brushed my calves, my eyes slid open in the dim light of my cell,where the morning had only just begun to tidy the room. All around me were the little sighing sounds of water stretching its limbs, creeping up the walls with damp and clapping wavelets. I rolled onto my stomach and put my arm out to find the floor — but my bed floated on brightening water, and all I felt was the warm ocean, green kelp lazily circling the posts.
Near the door was a tall figure, a long, curved sword drawn at his side, pure white and gnarled, like the horn of a narwhal. Half in shadow, I could see his very long nose and black hair in a complicated braid like the rigging of a ship. He wore a black cap and thick, woolen black clothes,his skin moon–colored and rippling where it showed. The man watched me, bird–curious, while I drew up my sopping blankets to my chest, pale hair hanging in my face. Neither of us spoke for a long while.
"Where is the sun?" he said finally, his voice wriggling like a fish. He splashed closer, raising his bony sword to rest on the foot of my bed. His face was thin and severe, with a scrim of green algae at the chin, trimmed and neat as a beard, curling in a pretty pattern over his cheeks. "It would be like youto hide her in a nunnery. Give her to me and I will tell the others you were a good girl."
"I. . .I don’t know what you mean."
"The sun! The red–haired wife of Veles! You’ve put a white robe on her and cloistered her up — but we are here, now, and we will take her back across the sea with us, along with the many coins of Caorle!"
I was not frightened, exactly, but I thought he was certainly mad. He put out his hand to touch my face and I seized it, turning his palm over beneath my stare. It was covered in tiny silver scales and a frond of fine golden hair like fins. The man grinned.
"They do say the girls in hell are clever," he laughed.
But I ignored his palm and tore open his sleeve. He growled deep in his throat and frowned angrily, but there on his pale, fleshy arm was a long column of writing, pricked into him with cuttlefish ink and a bone needle. He jerked it away from me before I could read it.
"Where did you get that?" I cried, leaping out of my bed and clasping my arms around his neck to keep him with me, to make him speak. He laughed his wriggling laugh again and rolled off of the bed with me tangled up in him, driving us both beneath the rising water. My face fell beneath the blue and the black,and I sputtered as he rolled around and around me, like a crocodile shaking his supper senseless. He kissed me under the water and I swallowed salt.
"Alessandro did it," he said against my cheek, and even through the roiling water I heard it clear. "You did not think we came here first, did you? We went to the Doge, and he cowered before us, as well he should. He gave us gold discs with rays that could sever arms, but these were not the sun, not really,and we could not be fooled. Alessandro told me where to find it," the man pulled me up gasping from the water and pressed his cold face to my cheek, his breath quick. "He said: go to Caorle, to the chapel with three naves, and there look for the cell that houses a girl with silver hair. Let me put the cuttlefish under your skin and I will tell you the way.We know what the truth sounds like — and I have already enough fish under my skin to welcome the cuttle." I coughed and sputtered, and he threw me back onto the sodden bed. "I am Drušak, prince of the sea, and I will not leave this place without the gold of the sky wrapped around my arms!"
Then I did cry, so little breath was there in me, and so much did I want him, as any proper man would do, to put his arms around me in comfort, so that I could read my historian’s words from his flesh. He did not, but with his blank, useless arm he caressed my hair.
"Do you not know that you live in the wasteland of Perun, who stole the wife of Veles from her happy black bed?"
I shook my head and forced a few great, heavy tears from my eyes, leaning into him, nearer to his torn sleeve, his scrawled arm.
"Perun is the god of the sky and the clouds, and because of this he thinks he owns both the sun and the rains. But Veles, who is our father, who touched the sea at the heart of the world and drew up the vodníci like a jeweled shark in his fist, is the master of the dark, and the wet, and the black dirt. Should he not then possess the silver–footed rain?The sun slips beneath the horizon each night and lies happy and red–cheeked in the dark. Is she not then the wife of my father? Perun is but her landlord, when she sails in the sky. He is but the vessel which holds the rain. He calls himself the master of this place — but Veles is ever here, in the water that soaks your shoes. We came for our stepmother, across the sea,and where you would call us pirates, we are only a ship of loyal sons. We came to see her gold–tipped breasts unbounded, and her mouth aflame — we came to take her back from the wasteland!"
"There. . .there is but one God, there is Christ, whose dove rests on all our shoulders. What you speak of are demons." My voice quavered; I was not very certain. My little books of mice and pendulums had spoken more of beautiful demons than ever they had extolled the Christ–child.
"That is what Perun whispers to keep the sea away from the sun," he said, the green of his cheeks glowing and growing even as he spoke. "Even the Eye of God cannot glimpse what cavorts on His Eyelids."
I started, searching his face for some knowledge of my barrel. "Did you command the millers to kill our priest?"
Drušak brightened; his head bobbed happily. "We taught him to dance on a floor of mushrooms and snails. He drinks our dolphin–liquor every night, and sings hymns to sunken anchors."
Suddenly, the sound of shattering wood filled the wind, and the prince of the sea snatched up his horn–sword and pulled from behind his head a mask made all of thorns. He settled it gingerly over his nose and ran from the room, his legs sending up great sprays of bright water. Beneath his black breeches, he was barefoot.