The Boar's Head Carol is a 16th-century English song, so I assumed the lyrics were in the public domain. Descriptions of the maengu (minus the naming mythology) were borrowed from the Bakweri of modern-day Cameroon. And...sorry for the five-month hiatus.
Christmas in Barbados was a noisy affair, Philip thought. Taking advantage of a lull in the conversation, he ducked into a far corner of the parlor and threw open the window sash. The candle on the sill flickered and died, but the rush of night air was a welcome relief. Winter had slipped unobtrusively into the West Indies, bringing a string of dry winds from the sea. After growing up underneath the icy cliffs of Cornwall, waking up to a warm, fragrant and thoroughly tropical Christmas had been incredibly disorienting. But that wasn't half as disorienting as the jungle of people who had overtaken the parlor and dining room, chattering like dozens of attractive, unintelligible birds.
Philip knew most of them hadn't come last year and probably wouldn't come next year. Reverend Lawrence invited his congregation to a gathering after church on Christmas Day as a matter of tradition. But from what he'd heard, the offer had been politely declined so often it had turned into lip service. The holidays were a twelve-day festival interspersed with balls and dinners hosted by wealthier families, with the largest on New Year's Eve and Epiphany. As a rule no one celebrated Christmas on the twenty-fifth of December. But this year was an exception, and Philip had little doubt as to why so many had flocked to the mission house tonight. They had come to see the beautiful savage in crimson.
In that at least they were not disappointed. Syrena had worn a vibrant red silk trimmed with silver, with three layers of sleeves around her elbows. A crystalline poinsettia glistened from her hair which, despite her efforts to pin it up, fell in an unruly cascade of dark curls down her neck. She did not wear gloves, but she was holding a white lace fan in her fingers. The candlelight gave a translucent glow to her complexion as she opened and closed it uncertainly across her bodice. Syrena was not beautiful; she was stunning.
"This is not a good time to be antisocial, young Swift. Not if you want to protect your territory." Silas Ramsay sidled up beside him. The older man's voice was a bit louder than usual, and his face was flushed—evidence that the punch had been liberally spiked with rum, Philip thought. "How long has it been since she came here? Six weeks?"
"Eight," Philip replied.
"Eight. My word," Silas murmured. "And tonight she looks almost genteel. Though it takes more than a fancy dress to make a lady. You know-" He leaned closer to Philip, speaking in what he clearly thought was a whisper "-there's been plenty of speculation about the girl's background. Not that I'm one to listen to rumors. Just thought you should be aware. Some folks are saying before she came here, she lived on a deserted island like one of the heathen natives."
"It's true. She was stranded for ten years before we found her." Philip didn't see any reason to deny what was fact. At the moment, Syrena was standing in a loose circle with half a dozen women whose ages ranged from eighteen to eighty. Although he could hear only pieces of the conversation, they looked relaxed, and Syrena—if not entirely relaxed—looked about as comfortable as she ever did look in large groups. If they thought ill of her, they were hiding it well.
"Well, at least she's not one of those simpering coquettes. Lord knows I have enough of them in my house. My eldest girl can't keep her eyes off the officers, and Elinor will go exactly the same way if she doesn't stop reading so many damnable novels."
No. Elinor is too plain to be a coquette, and she knows it, Philip thought with a pang of sympathy. Elinor would never possess her sister's talent for coy flirtation, and she was sensible enough not to try. But fifteen was a very young age to have to shoulder that knowledge. It was not surprising she had chosen to disappear behind a volume of poetry tonight, in the same corner of the parlor he had just abandoned.
"The real pleasure of courtship is in the chase, you know," Silas continued affably. "Coming across something beautiful and wild and working out how to tame it. Lord, what I wouldn't give to be twenty-six again!"
A sequence of bars on the clavichord spared Philip the trouble of replying. It was just as well; the heat of so many warm bodies had made his brain so muddled he doubted he could have thought of anything tactful. Julian invited him forward. Philip deflected. It seemed foolish, but he didn't want to completely abandon Syrena to the socialites. It wouldn't be appropriate for him to step into a women's circle, but at least he could watch over her in case anything upset her. As Silas Ramsay wandered toward the dining room, Philip maintained his position near the window, observing the conversation as bits of it drifted to his ears.
"…from Mallorca. You must be quite homesick. Are things very strange for you in Barbados?"
Syrena weighed her answer for several seconds. From his angle, the shadows of mistletoe and lace from her fan dappled her face in grey leaves. "Yes. Washtubs are strange," she said after a pause. "I don't understand their purpose. They're very uncomfortable, and there's no room to swim. An island like this has so many perfectly good pools for bathing."
The young woman in grey who had posed the question looked flustered. She glanced briefly at the rest of the circle, but no one came to her rescue. "To swim in a natural pool—well, it's hardly something I would…"
"You don't know how," Syrena said, her eyes widening in an expression of sympathy. "It's all right. It's never too late to learn. I am sure any of us could teach you."
The entire circle began to look uneasy, now that Syrena had ingenuously dropped the topic in their laps. An older woman, probably in her early forties and dressed in an elaborate amber brocade, leaned closer to Syrena and said, "Actually, dear, in Barbados swimming is a very rare accomplishment for a lady. You should be proud if you've mastered it. Most girls are quite hopeless."
"Yes, did your mother teach you, or did she hire a governess?" A ripple of laughter followed, during which Philip doubted Syrena realized she was being quietly mocked. He saw her lips move in reply, but he couldn't make out her response before the sound of Julian's bass and Simon's tenor drowned it out.
The boar's head in hand bring I,
Bedeck'd with bays and rosemary.
And I pray you, my masters, be merry,
Quot estis in convivio.
Caput apri defero,
Reddens laudes Domino!
The boar's head, as I understand,
Is the rarest dish in all the land,
Which thus bedeck'd with a gay garland
Let us servire en cantico.
Caput apri defero,
Syrena's group migrated away from the clavichord toward the window, making it easier for Philip to pick up their exchange. So far none of them seemed to have noticed him. Since moving would only risk drawing attention to himself, he directed his eyes back towards the clavichord and tried to look disinterested, keeping Syrena in his peripheral vision. A cursory glance in the corner told him he was not the only one eavesdropping. Elinor Ramsay remained riveted to her book on the sofa, but her eyes did not appear to be moving, except to occasionally flit upwards.
"…seem to recall you saying your father was a sailor. Was he a merchant?"
"A privateer," Syrena corrected politely. Philip felt a wave of admiration for the ease in which the lie slipped off her tongue. In the span of a few weeks, she had become thoroughly fluent in her concocted history.
"Your poor mother. I don't suppose you saw him very often," remarked the woman in amber brocade.
A trace of a smile played on Syrena's lips. "Often enough. For both our tastes, I think."
"At any rate, I suppose she must have raised you Catholic. Being of the faith herself, it's only natural she would bring you up under the old superstitions." The amber woman looked Syrena over, but not with a critical eye. Being born Catholic was a misfortune she could not help, something to be regarded with pity and understanding. She looked surprised when Syrena shook her head vehemently.
"She wasn't Catholic. She ran a cantina."
The amber woman looked perplexed. She frowned, this time with a trace of disapproval. "I'm afraid I don't understand. There are no Protestants in Mallorca, who else could have…" Her voice trailed off and Syrena, equally perplexed, did not offer a response.
"She means it must have been very difficult for your parents to find a church to marry in," the girl in grey explained tactfully. The woman in amber looked relieved; Syrena looked positively mystified. She crinkled her eyebrows.
"They weren't married in a church. They were married in a cantina. That was—that was where they lived."
"Yes, of course. The ceremony, though. Didn't they go to a church to exchange vows?"
"What? Oh, no. What an incredible idea." She thinks the ceremony of marriage is optional, Philip realized. Then he was surprised that possibility hadn't occurred to him sooner. He had made such an effort to avoid the topic, it was a small wonder her ideas about it were so off the mark. "I'm certain none of your parents thought they had to marry in a church," Syrena said.
At first, the stunned silence that followed seemed only to puzzle her. Philip's mind began to race. She had committed a serious faux pas, and though she didn't realize it yet, she would soon enough. In a single sentence, she had implied that all the women around her were bastards. Rather awkwardly, the amber woman took Syrena by the arm. "My dear," she began, leading her in the direction of the sofa, "I don't believe you're quite fit for civilized company yet. Now, it's obvious you meant no harm, but there are certain things you cannot say. Your mother clearly did a poor job with your upbringing, which is no fault of yours-"
Syrena blinked and stared at the floor. She seemed conscious of the fact that she had messed up but was at a loss on how. "My mother was an honorable woman," she said.
"I'm sure she was, and I'm sure she did her best. But she and your father, well, they weren't…their union was not legitimate, was it? I suppose it's only to be expected, when a child grows up in such a…rustic environment, for it to leave a certain roughness in manners."
Philip's feet started carrying him forward before he was even aware of it, much less what he planned to do afterward. A sharp jerk on his shoulder arrested the motion. "Don't. You'll just make it worse," Ephraim said quietly into his ear.
"Get off," Philip told him.
"Lower your voice. These people aren't pirates, and you're not yourself. Get a grip."
"…simply need more time. Otherwise one day you'll carelessly insult people who aren't as forgiving." The amber woman did not seem to have realized that Syrena had stopped walking. Her face had gone horribly pale, and she was beginning to sway on her feet. By now most of the guests were chatting quietly again, evidently trying their best to put her blunder behind them. She needs air, Philip thought; it was perverse how after one slip in etiquette everyone seemed determined not to notice her.
As she neared the sofa, her ankles buckled. Elinor's book tumbled to the floor as she sprang from her seat, which was fortunate; if she had waited a moment longer Syrena probably would have fallen right on top of her. "Syrena, your eyes…"
Finally turning to look, the amber woman appeared surprised at her charge's condition. Syrena doubled over. Her left hand groped for the arm of the sofa, and Elinor caught her around the waist. Philip thought the older woman looked a little too relieved to turn Syrena over to someone else. Her arm wrapped around Syrena's bodice, Elinor began to guide her out of the parlor. Philip wrenched his arm out of Ephraim's grasp. It required less effort than he had expected, which meant either he had grown stronger or Ephraim had relaxed; at the moment Philip didn't much care one way or the other.
"Philip, I cannot see," Syrena whispered urgently as he slid his arm under her elbow.
"You're only blacking out. We'll take you outside, where you can breathe," Elinor interjected, continuing to propel Syrena toward the front door. Philip had his own suspicions about this, which he thought best to keep to himself. An awkward threesome, they maneuvered elbow in elbow through the door and around the side of the house. Philip was grateful the moon was three-quarters full tonight; otherwise they all would be as blind as Syrena. The ground sloped about thirty feet from the house, where a small stream bubbled around the reverend's garden. Elinor stopped. Before Philip was aware of what she was doing, she had swirled her handkerchief in the water and wrung it out.
"It's all right, really, it's just too hot inside, you need to cool down, here-" Elinor pressed the damp kerchief to Syrena's temple. Syrena let out a sharp hiss. Elinor gasped and stumbled backwards, dropping her kerchief on the grass. At first Philip thought she was only startled, but he soon realized the grave mistake she had made. As Syrena's hand had flown to her face, her mouth flared open. Two tiny but unmistakable fangs had replaced her canine teeth. Elinor swallowed. "Too fresh?" she ventured.
Lockjawed and clutching her temple, Syrena nodded. "Here," Philip said. Carefully, he pried her hand away and used his own dry handkerchief to wipe off the droplets biting into her skin.
"Sss-sorry. So sorry," she whispered through clenched teeth, her voice still managing to come out as a hiss.
"It wasn't your fault," Philip told her. To his left Elinor wrung her handkerchief out on the grass. In the dark it was impossible to tell what emotions were passing across her face. "You don't have to be scared," he said in a gentler tone.
"I'm not scared. I'm not scared at all," she said quickly. A pause, then, "You need saltwater, don't you?"
Syrena rubbed her eyes. As she dropped her hand, Philip saw her hazel irises were unfocused, and her gaze drifted to a spot beyond his shoulder as she spoke. "I need…turmeric tea. There's a small jar in my room. And there should still be…hot water. On the stove." Elinor leaned forward attentively. As she started to rise, Philip put a hand on her shoulder.
"I'll go. I know where it is," he said. He would be faster, and it would arouse suspicion for someone of Elinor's status to be seen brewing tea in the kitchen. "Unless you'd rather go," he added, considering suddenly that Elinor might feel uncomfortable alone with a mermaid.
Elinor shook her head. "No, I'll—I'll stay."
Philip gave Syrena's shoulder a light touch and turned back toward the garden. With the moon behind it, the enormous tamarind tree beside the house glistened with an unearthly, pearlescent glow. As he approached the house, he listened for sounds of people stirring inside. The rooms set aside for guests were all in front, including the large dining room and parlor. He entered through the back door, where his entrance would more likely go unnoticed. As he ducked into the library, he noticed that the door leading into the music parlor had been left ajar. His hand hovered over the stair rail. He was about to walk upstairs, but an unshakable impulse propelled him toward the door.
The cheerful buzz of two dozen voices emanated from the other room. The music from the clavichord nearby made it impossible to hear any conversation except those nearest the door. Without knowing exactly why, he pressed his ear closer and listened to the low dialogue on the other side.
"…said her family were Moors. The good reverend and his missionary are trying to convert a heathen."
"Don't be ridiculous. The Moors were driven off Mallorca in the thirteenth century. There aren't any left now." The second voice was masculine, like the first, with a slight upper-class drawl.
"Don't know about that. A few of 'em could have gone into hiding. Certainly would explain a bit….why she never came to church, for one." Philip closed his eyes in exasperation. That statement was categorically untrue, but there was no help for it. Syrena the savage, Syrena the bastard, Syrena the infidel. The labels they placed on her seemed to have no end. Walk away, he thought. As disgusted as he felt, that was the wise, the Christian, thing to do.
"D'you believe that story, about them finding her on a deserted island?"
The second man snorted. "Bit of an odor to it, don't you think? There aren't that many deserted islands left on the maps these days, but there are plenty of whores."
Philip's resolve snapped. He pulled the door open and spun the second speaker around, getting a good look at his face. The man was younger than he'd expected, with sharp cheekbones and fair skin that suggested he hadn't spent much time in the sun. A classical sort of arrogance had carved his features, though right now he looked shocked—more than shocked, he looked frightened, which surprised Philip. He'd meant to look angry; he hadn't meant to look terrifying. "It's rude to spread lies about people behind their backs," he said coldly.
"And how d'you know they're lies, missionary?" demanded the first speaker. At first glance he looked like he could be a manservant, though he lacked the refinement common to aristocratic households. "You been around her 'er whole life? It's not natural, for a girl to stay shut up like she does. She don't go to church, and she don't eat meat. If she isn't a Moor, than what is she?"
A lost girl on an island, Philip thought. A lost, homesick girl who's been lost for four hundred years.
The second man regarded him with pity. "Think on it, Swift. You don't know her any better than the rest of us. For all you know, she slept with a dozen sailors before you found her, and she'd have done the same with you if she'd thou-" The force of Philip's fist against his jaw sent him sprawling across the clavichord. An unholy clang deafened the room as the young man's body rammed against the keys.
"Oy! Watch where you're getting clobbered," protested Simon, who had yanked his hands away from the clavichord a few seconds too late. Ignoring Simon, the aristocrat wiped his hand across his mouth, now streaked crimson from a bloodied lower lip.
"What the hell is the matter with you?" He started to pull himself up, hammering down a few more discordant notes in the process. Philip grabbed his vest and pinned him back down against the clavichord. The music stand made a satisfying crack as the other man's back slammed into it. "Take your hands off me," he demanded.
"No," Philip said quietly, knowing he didn't have to speak loudly for everyone in the now deathly silent room to hear him. "Not until you learn to refrain from speaking ill of things you do not understand."
The young man stared at him in bewilderment. "You're bloody mad," he said.
"Refrain," Philip repeated. "Refrain and take back what you said about her."
Another hand grabbed his shoulder. Philip spun around. The fist of the first man was just slow enough for him to react. He dodged right, and the blow glanced wide, leaving the music stand in splinters. Twisting underneath his opponent's arm, Philip straightened and raised his guard. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the aristocrat stumble to his feet. The young man slid his hand under his vest and pulled out something silver. The next moment Philip felt an excruciating pain in the back of his head. An explosion of light appeared behind his eyes, and then everything went black and silent.
The voices were gone when Philip woke up. As soon as he started to come to, he regretted it. The back of his head felt as though it had been bashed by a sledgehammer, and an army of miniature, spear-jabbing Visigoths seemed to have taken up residence behind his forehead. Groaning, he tried to raise his hand to his temples, but his arm refused to cooperate. He opened his eyes. The familiar wooden rafters of his bedroom stared back. Shadows flickered across the ceiling and walls from the orange candle beside the pitch-dark window. Somewhere to his right, a chair creaked. He turned, reluctantly.
"You're back," Julian observed.
"Could I not be back?" Philip asked.
"We could ask Ephraim to knock you out again, but he's with Syrena." That should upset me, Philip thought. At the very least it should mildly annoy him. He considered sitting up and dismissed the idea. "Is she all right?" he asked.
"In a manner of speaking. She's no worse than you left her—meaning she's tired, disoriented and still can't see worth a damn." Julian closed the book in his right hand with a dull snap and replaced it on the desk beside the flickering tallow candle. "Meanwhile, I hope while you were unconscious you prepared some eloquent justification for the way you rearranged Stephen de Bracy's jaw earlier this evening."
It was a sign that his concussion hadn't fully worn off, that he had to repeat the sentence three times in his head before knowing how to answer. "They were…they were saying dishonorable things about her," Philip said. Julian looked at him in disbelief.
"You left a blind girl outside, unprotected, in the middle of the night, because you felt the need to defend her honor?"
"No," Philip replied emphatically. The sound of his voice, more forceful than he'd intended, made his head throb again. "She made one mistake, Julian. I couldn't let them condemn her for that."
"Well, if your main objective was to make them forget whatever Syrena did, I think you succeeded."
Grimacing, Philip made another effort to sit up. He fingered the back of his head and stared out the window. The sky was dark, but he could still make out the black outline of the tamarind branches guarding his room. Julian rose from the chair and stretched. The floorboard behind him creaked. Ephraim entered, looking strained. Hints of dark circles were starting to show beneath his eyelids. "Didn't intend for you to wake up so soon," he said dourly.
"What happened to the guests?" Philip asked.
"Gone, finally," Ephraim replied. He plopped gracelessly into the chair Julian had just abandoned without asking permission. "Took almost two hours to get de Bracy to leave. You realize he was about to pull a pistol on you, don't you? Nearly wore out the reverend's patience convincing him you hadn't been challenging him to a duel." He kicked his legs up on the bedspread. "The rest of the guests were evenly split on the whole affair. Half of them have decided you're a danger to society, and the other half have decided they're madly in love with you."
Julian raised an eyebrow. "The female half, I hope."
Ephraim responded with a noncommittal grunt that could have implied anything. He rubbed his eyes. "By the way," he added, reaching into his waistcoat, "your lady-love asked me to give you this. For your head." Ephraim tossed a miniature glass phial into his hands. It was half-filled with something brilliantly clear; water, perhaps, but Philip had never seen water glisten like liquid diamonds. "Sea droplets, wrung out of a mermaid's hair. Better use it fast; they're only potent for a few hours," Ephraim explained. Gritting his teeth, Philip brought his fingers to the sore spot a few inches above the nape of his neck. A bit of dried blood had worked its way into his hair, and the area around it was swollen. Carefully, he tipped the phial onto the wound. The icy shock nearly knocked him backwards, but just when he thought his skull would surely crack open, the freezing subsided and the pain vanished.
"Better? Good. Get up," Ephraim said. "There's two girls downstairs waiting for you, and the rest of us want to sleep."
Covering a yawn, Philip made his way unsteadily to the music parlor. He flinched at the sight of the clavichord. It was still standing and looked functional, but the dents and cracks from the earlier brawl were more obvious now that the room was deserted. Inside the library next door, Syrena sat on the hardwood floor with her back to him. He felt relieved to see Elinor there as well, and was unsure if it was because Syrena had not been left alone or because Elinor was a girl.
"Good morning, Philip," Syrena said, without turning in his direction. "It is morning, isn't it?"
Elinor turned around sharply. She hadn't heard him approach, and his appearance startled her. "It was kind of you to stay. Thank you," he said politely.
Her face flushed scarlet. "It was nothing," she murmured.
Syrena rotated her body to face the doorway. "Elinor has told me an interesting story. She says there is a man in her family who knows about merpeople."
Philip furrowed his eyebrows. He knew her father's attitude towards novels, and it seemed highly unlikely that Silas Ramsay had expertise in the mythical or the occult. But for Elinor's sake, he tried to conceal his skepticism. "Really?" he said.
Elinor nodded. "His name is Jonas. He's part of our family. He worked in our fields for almost forty years."
"Elinor, is he one of your father's slaves?" Philip asked carefully.
"Yes," Elinor answered with a small shrug. "He's from west Africa. He says his father was a fisherman, and sometimes if they went out just before sunrise, they would see a school of mermaids in the water."
Philip exhaled slowly. Even assuming this Jonas did have first-hand knowledge of mermaids, the odds he would want to help them were incredibly remote. And Philip did not think he could in clear conscience ask for it. Once, when he first left England, he had an idealistic dream of awakening Barbados to the evils of slavery. But he had learned in less than a week how deeply entrenched the trade in human cargo was in Caribbean life. Most did not even think to question its morality; Elinor Ramsay was living proof of that.
"I would like to talk to him," Syrena said quietly.
Philip rubbed his neck and let his hand drop. "Then let's go," he said.
It was a three-mile journey to the Ramsay estate. They rode in silence, Elinor on her speckled bay mare and Philip on a brown-and-white stallion, with Syrena's arms around his waist. The stallion had shied away from Syrena at first, sensing that she was not a creature that belonged on its back. It had taken almost a quarter hour of Philip rubbing his neck and whispering soothing words into his ear before he would let Syrena mount. Syrena seemed equally uncomfortable on the horse. She dug her fingers so deeply into his shirt he suspected they were close to drawing blood, though to be fair, the fact that she couldn't see probably made it more difficult for her. It was a relief to them both when Elinor finally dismounted at the edge of her father's field.
They made slow progress across the sour grass and sedge. This was partly because Philip did not want to rush Syrena, whose legs were sore from riding, and partly because they were following Elinor, who knew the route but was hindered by her uncooperative clothing. Unlike Syrena, she was still dressed in her white holiday brocade and had to navigate the brambles under layers of hooped petticoats. More than a couple times he heard a distinct shredding as another bit of lace was sacrificed to the understory. As they approached the wattle and daub cabins, Philip could not shake the feeling of walking into a labyrinth. There were dozens of houses scattered across the grass with no apparent pattern. Evidently Elinor had not been exaggerating when she said her father owned more slaves than anyone this close to the capital. When she finally stopped in front of one and knocked confidently on the door, he was mildly amazed that she knew it was the right one.
Almost a minute passed. A faint creak cut the silence as the door opened, and the silhouette of a dreadlocked man appeared behind the threshold. "Miss Elinor. It is very late for a young girl to be wandering outside."
"I was hoping to speak to old Jonas—that is, your grandfather." In the moonlight Philip saw the man on the other side of the door more clearly. His dreadlocks were tied behind his shoulders with a loose thong. Laboring in the cane fields had made his shoulders broad and muscular, but he looked younger than his deep voice implied—nineteen, no more than twenty. His eyes flicked past Elinor and landed on himself and Syrena. "This is Philip Swift," Elinor said helpfully. "He's a missionary. He's one of Reverend Lawrence's." Something in the young man's face clouded. A chill tightened in Philip's chest, as wintry as the thought that accompanied it. We are not welcome here.
"Let them in, Eleazar." The voice from the back of the cabin was older and hoarser. Still looking suspicious, Eleazar pushed the door open wide enough for them to enter. Philip ducked beneath the doorframe, his left hand holding Syrena's right. It took his eyes a few minutes to adjust to the darkness. Eleazar drew back the window coverings to allow a thin stream of moonlight into the house; they obviously did not own candles. Philip wondered vaguely if this was one method Silas Ramsay used to discourage his slaves from holding any sort of nightly gathering. As his vision sharpened, he saw the cabin was split by a coarse sackcloth curtain. While he pondered the curtain, a dark hand began to push it aside, and a man emerged with milky eyes and leathery skin. He stretched an arm toward Syrena. "This one smells of the sea. You are one of the maengu."
Syrena stiffened. She took a few cautious steps forward, her right hand reaching out in what, for her, was still total darkness. Jonas approached but did not immediately take her other hand. His eyes narrowed as he contemplated her unfocused ones. "But your folk do not go blind. What are you, then?"
She tilted her chin upward. "My name is Syrena," she said with a touch of pride that sent a warmth through Philip's chest.
"Is it?" Jonas asked. "Is that truly your name?"
Syrena nodded. He clapped his hands together and laughed. A gravelly, barely audible laugh, but a laugh nonetheless. "A mermaid with two names! How frightening for you." Jonas turned to regard Philip for the first time. "Was this your doing, missionary?"
"It was," Philip said. It was meant to be an act of kindness, he thought, but it seemed pointless to say so out loud. Jonas lowered himself shakily into a chair. Philip nudged Syrena in the direction of the dusty table. Her hand found the surface, but as it groped for the edge, it knocked against an earthenware cup and sent it rolling onto the floor. The shattering sound triggered a shrill cry on the far side of the cabin. Eleazar waved away Syrena's apology and ducked behind the curtain while Philip moved to retrieve the broken ceramic. From the other side of the sackcloth, he heard Eleazar murmur, "Shhhh, Rebecca, it's only a piece of pottery. Come out, you have visitors."
Eleazar reemerged with a small girl in his arms who looked one or two. Her skin was several shades lighter than his, and the age gap between them was so wide it was difficult to believe they were siblings, though perhaps they were cousins. Elinor gasped in delight. Eleazar let Rebecca play with his index finger a few moments before passing her to Elinor. As Elinor paced the room whispering to Rebecca, Philip scooped up the earthenware fragments and offered them wordlessly to Eleazar. It occurred to him that he had no idea what to say to this young man, who had probably witnessed more hardship in a single month than Philip had in his entire life.
"We have met other missionaries before you," Eleazar explained in a neutral voice. "They usually talk about Paradise and the rewards of obedience."
Philip lowered his eyes. "I am sorry for that," he said.
Eleazar crossed his arms impatiently. "You are not carrying a Bible. Did you prepare a sermon for us instead?"
A retort waited on his tongue. No, I am not like the others, he could have said, or No, the missionaries you heard twisted the Gospel because they did not understand it. "Actually, we came to beg for your help," Philip replied.
"I know what troubles you," Jonas said from the table. "The maengu are meant to possess a single name, given after they have lived a hundred years. But you, foolish boy, gave her a mortal name like your own. Now the two are at war." He wrapped his fingers around Syrena's thoughtfully. "Do you find it so dreadful, growing old? It is a natural thing, and not the worst that can happen to a person."
"It is not a natural thing for me," Syrena answered coldly.
"And you, missionary?" Jonas asked, still with his back to Philip. "Did you only bring her to me because you cannot stand seeing her age?"
"No!" Philip shot back. He could feel his temper, which had already snapped once tonight, getting the better of him again; as a result he did not put much thought into his answer. "I brought her here because I can't stand seeing her age alone."
Rebecca began to cry, and Elinor tried futilely to rock her back into stillness. Philip regretted his outburst. His anger was supposed to defend the weak and the abused, not terrify infant girls. To his surprise, Jonas laughed again. "Good, good," he said. "If you had answered the way most do, or if you had hesitated, I would have told my grandson to throw you out headfirst. You are different. Foolish, but different."
"You'll help, then?" Elinor interjected hopefully.
"No," Jonas replied. "I could not fix your friend, even if I wanted to. And I do not."
Elinor glared at him over the crown of Rebecca's head. "It doesn't matter what you want. I could—I could order you to help them, and even if you couldn't completely—"
"Elinor, stop." Philip cut her off before she could finish. Besides the fact that she looked thoroughly uncomfortable attempting to pull rank, he knew this would get them nowhere. She was the plantation owner's daughter. Even if they liked her on some small level, they did not trust her. "I think it would help if we spoke to them alone for a few minutes," he said.
Elinor recoiled. His words had hurt her, as he suspected they would. She started to open her mouth again, but Rebecca was squirming fitfully, distraught by all the loud voices that had invaded her sleep. Shifting Rebecca in her arms, Elinor whispered something to her and began to carry her out the door. Philip closed his eyes with relief, and a small stab of remorse. Eleazar watched surreptitiously from the window as she meandered away from the house. Rebecca's cries grew fainter as they wandered aimlessly in the sour grass. When she was a safe distance away, he closed the curtain.
"I did not lie to the child," Jonas said flatly. "I cannot undo what you did. It needs something evil and unnatural to erase a name, and I am neither."
Syrena rubbed her temple. She looked disappointed and tired, but not surprised. "I didn't think you could help," she said quietly. "I came because I wanted to know—I wanted to ask you…" Her voice sounded oddly constricted. She swallowed. "To ask if it's true. If you have actually seen merpeople in west Africa."
Jonas regarded her curiously. "The merfolk of my country are different from you. They have woolen hair and gap-toothed smiles. But…yes. I saw them, in the waters beside Mount Fako. Not often. I cannot say if they are still there, but they were there sixty years ago."
It might have been a trick of the moonlight, but for a moment Philip thought he saw something silver glisten out of the corner of Syrena's eye. Her fingers began to shake, and she reflexively buried them in her elbows. Suddenly her entire upper body convulsed as a choking sound caught in her throat. Just when he thought she really was about to cry, she squeezed her eyes shut and the shaking subsided. Philip looked away, aware that this was a part of her he could not share.
"Was the rest of what you said also true?" he asked, when he thought the silence had lasted long enough. "That you're unwilling to help us?"
"Unwilling to help you for free, yes," Jonas replied. "I know what kind of demon is needed to save your sea-woman. I can tell you its name, and where to find it. My price," he said, folding his hands on the table, "is my grandchildren."
Philip's chest tightened. He did not have to ask what Jonas meant. This was not a price; it was a privilege. Jonas was offering him the opportunity to finally oppose the greatest social injustice in the Caribbean. The idea sent a troubling exhilaration through his veins. He forced himself to hold it in check. "I don't like to make promises I may not be able to keep," he said slowly. "What makes you think we have the ability to free them?"
Eleazar crossed the room and sat at the table next to his grandfather. "Under Barbados law, it is illegal for slaves to leave their plantations without written permission from their masters," he said. "It is also illegal under Barbados law to teach slaves to write."
"You see? Your skills are in high demand here," Jonas explained. "You will write a paper with the message that my grandson is picking up a cargo shipment for his master, Silas Ramsay. That will be the easy part." He nodded briefly at the window. "Rebecca's nurse is a Creole woman. She will not help you. Smuggling her out will take more creativity. But you will. Because that is the price of my second gift."
"What about you?" Philip asked pointedly. He was referring to Jonas, but he deliberately directed the question at Eleazar. He wondered why Eleazar was not demanding that they find a way to bring his grandfather as well, how he could so callously leave an old man behind. Then for a flash of a second he caught a tightness in the younger man's jaw and understood that they had already had that conversation many, many times times. His arrival with Syrena had not inspired a sudden dash for freedom. They had been planning this for a while—months, perhaps, and had only been waiting for the opportune moment. When Jonas did not reply, Philip let the question drop.
"You will give us the demon's name and location, in exchange for two lives," he clarified.
"No," Jonas said abruptly. "The demon is the first gift. The second gift-" He directed his gaze back to Syrena and continued, "that is for your liengu woman to decide."
Syrena blinked. Her head turned back towards Jonas, though her eyes ended up gazing somewhere over his left shoulder. Jonas took her hand again, and she locked her fingers instinctively between his. "It is not old age that is your curse. It is the endless shifting between years, never knowing what new sickness will attack you next. I can end that." The moonlight revealed a faint prickle of goose bumps on Syrena's arm. "Choose one," he told her. "One relic of old age to live with, until you find the creature that can return you to what you were before."
Philip straightened warily. "How can you do that?" he asked.
"How does not matter," Jonas answered curtly. He fingered Syrena's wrist and studied her face. "You could choose to remain blind. Or you could lose all feeling in the fingers of your left arm, or all your memories from the day before. You have time to think it over."
Syrena withdrew her hand. Cautiously, she swept it across the table until it found his own. Her fingers were cold, and they were shaking. "Prove it," she said steadily. "Tell us first what creature can erase a name, and how. Then I will decide if we believe you."
Jonas pressed his thumbs together and rested them under his chin. "That is easy," he replied. "The evil and unnatural thing you need is called William Turner."