By the time we made our way into Medina, the wan gray light of the misty day had given way to a dark, cold, wet night. It does not really rain continuously in Seattle in the fall, but you could be excused for thinking that it did. Going through Seattle meant that we also had gone through Seattle traffic to get to the 520 bridge, before passing along the streets just north and west of Bellevue to get to the community of Software Magnates.
Most larger cities have communities like this, places where the untitled aristocracy live, but people in the Pacific Northwest have always frowned on ostentation. It was okay to have money, but lording it over others was considered … gauche. That’s why the houses in Medina, while more or less “mansions” in terms of sheer footage, all looked about what one would expect in a moderately wealthy middle class suburb, though with most of it hidden from view. We went up a winding drive way to what appeared to be a two car garage, though when the garage opened you realized that was just because the entrance to the sixteen car garage was two cars wide, albeit mostly empty. A fiery red sportscar parked up against the elevator. We pulled around to the slot on the other side of that elevator, blinking owlishly in the harsh light of the car garage.
“I’ll be right back,” Matt said, opening the car door and the elevator beyond. “I should probably give my sister a heads up that she’s about to have unexpected guests.”
I opened up the side and back of the van, pulling out the wheelchair and setting it up. Llorana’s eyes were open and seemed at least somewhat more alert than they had before. She tried to sit up, then breathed in sharply as the injury to her side suddenly surged into awareness. Gently I helped her to a sitting position, sensitive to the pain she was in.
“You probably don’t want to move much just yet,” I said. “You were pretty seriously wounded - I treated it as well as I could, but it’s going to take a while to heal, even for a murúch.”
I said the word using the Scottish pronunciation my grandmother would have used, with faintly rolled r’s and the final ch sound aspirated kind of like the ch of Bach, but less harsh. Most American speakers would have said merrow (if not the more commonly used term “mermaid”), but I’ve found when dealing with the fae that they are sensitive about their clan and type names.
For a moment, her pupils widened, dramatically, to the extent that her white corneas all but disappeared. I’d seen it before in the Fae, even once in myself (and damn near terrified myself for a week thereafter). She was looking at me with her Sight, the ability to see beyond the seeming, and her face drew up in astonishment and perhaps a shade of fear.
“You be the Storm Crow,” she said, though it took me a moment to realize that she’d spoken to me in Gaelic.
The mermaid’s voice had a pure Welsh lilt to it, and I remembered once again why Welsh bards were so revered. I loved Scottish Gaelic, but listening to Welsh Gaelic was like listening to a stream babbling over stones in a brook, compared to waves breaking against jagged rocks in a storm. Yet fpr all the beauty of her voice, the words were worrisome.
“I am halfling, sea daughter, just as you are,” I replied in my own Gaelic dialect, though I suspect that with the Pacific Northwest influence it sounded downright bizarre to her. She had to parse it out, then nodded, shame and defiance on her face.
Few halflings liked to be reminded of their status. Halflings live in the shadow of two worlds, not accepted by the high fae, but not able to fit well in the human world either. The mermaid shook her head, grimacing before saying, “I canna argue with the truth of that. I am in your debt, Storm Crow, for you have doubtless saved my life. What be your human name?”
If there was any question that she was of the Blood, this one question would have answered that. All Fae have true-names, the name by which they can be controlled if the name is said properly, and which they protect diligently. Halflings are not as bound by this restriction, but if someone knows our true name, they can rob us of much of our power. That is why most halflings tend to adopt human names. I know my own true name - it resonates so deeply within me that I would be unable to not know my true name - but I normally wear the names that my parents gave me.
“I’m Briannon McConnell, but I usually go by Bree.”
“I be Llorana Trewellan.” She held out her hand and I took it, and with some careful maneuvering I managed to get her into the wheelchair.
I heard the elevator door swish open - after discovering that Matt had a yacht on tap, the idea that he had an elevator in his house no longer really phased her. If anything, having it would simplify a lot of things.
Matt and his sister came around to the back of the van just as I’d settled Llorana..
“Matt, I don’t really care what … oh …”
I knew Lena mainly through my association with Matt, and while we’re not mortal enemies, she thinks that I’m a goth girl wannabe (no - I really don’t want to be, but Goth seems to settle around me like a Niel Gaiman story) and I prefer even Matt’s techie grunge slumming to the impeccably dressed corporate lawyer. Yet for once, there was a certain satisfaction in witnessing the shock in her eyes at seeing Llorana, until it hit me that the fact that Llorana was a mermaid wasn’t what was causing the reaction. I looked at Lena, then back down to Llorana, who looked almost as shocked as Lena.
Twins. Llorana’s hair was down, platinum strands white against the plaid sweater she wore, her lashes pale, while Lena’s was up in a precise bun and she wore subtle makeup that darkened her brows and lashes, but even with these differences, they could easily have traded places, if it weren’t for the huge difference below the hips..
“You’re … me?” Lena said after several seconds.
“Na,” Llorana said, a faint catch in her voice from the pain in her torso. “But I have na doubt we be cousins.”
Lena looked at her, really looked, taking in for the first time the tail fin that had come loose at some point peeking out from beneath the skirt.
“... oh … you’re a … mother was right ...”
“What?!” Matt and Llorana said at the same time.
“When I was a little girl, maybe about eight or so, I had a lot of trouble getting to sleep at night, so mother would sit with me and tell me stories that her mother had told her, tales about the old country. One story she told me was that many years ago there had been a church in a little town called Zennor, on the Cornish coast, and that the choirmaster of that church was a man by the name of Matthew Trewellan - she actually told me that you’d been named for him, Matt.
Anyway, he supposedly had the voice of the Bards in him, and a young mermaid named Lenore heard him singing one day as he sat on the beach, composing the hymns for the next day’s service. She was intrigued, and worked with a sea witch to turn her tail into legs. She then came ashore in a wedding dress from a sunken ship, coming into the church, the only hint to her identity the fact that the hems of the dress refused to dry. When Matthew started singing with the choir Lenore joined her voice with his, and Matthew fell in love. As the service ended she led Matthew out of the church and down to the water, dragging him below the waves. Many thought the mermaid had drowned him, but several years later, a few miles north in Bristol, a sea captain who’d just dropped anchor was astonished to see a mermaid surface near his ship, asking if he would move the anchor as it was blocking the entrance to the home of herself and her husband, Matthew Trewellan, and she couldn’t get in to feed her children.”
“What she told me was that we were descended from that marriage, that some of the Trewellans stayed in the sea as merfolk, and others who were born with legs moved back to the land, but that for many years the families kept in touch and supported one another.”
“Aye, that be the truth of it. The sea children of Lenore and Matthew need your help. I’ve come to ask.”
She started panting at that, and a glance down at her sweater showed a spreading red stain.
“Let’s get you upstairs, where I can put on some new dressing,” I said quietly, nodding pointedly at the elevator. Both Matt and Lena got the message that we had higher concerns at the moment than family history.
As I was pushing Lena towards the elevator, I did notice that she looked anxiously at Matt, as if she was dubious about him and his motives. Since he’d done very little that she would have seen, I nodded grimly at the suspicion forming in my head.
An hour later, Lena and I had sent Matt off for some medical supplies - Lena had picked up the anxiety around Matt that I had seen earlier, and figured getting him out of the house for a few hours would be a good idea. Lena had then brought in a camisole and an underskirt that gave the mermaid some modesty while still giving me access to her injury. I re-examined the wound in much better light and pulled out a couple of small fragments that I’d missed earlier, then secured new bandages and taped up the wound. Lena moved in with a tray of broth that she placed on a tray built into the bed, and with a start I realized this was probably the same bed her father had cared for her mother in as the cancer took her. The elevator from the garage suddenly made a lot more sense.
The soup probably wouldn’t do much more than the glucose IV I’d hung, but it would get some food into Llorana’s stomach, likely jump starting other processes that I suddenly had to think about. Mermaid nursing was not part of the training I’d received from my grandmother but then again I rather doubted that it was part of the curriculum at the University of Washington either.
I looked back in on them a few minutes later and they were talking in a very animated fashion about family and siblings and other very ordinary subjects, and rather than disturbing them I left the door slightly ajar then went to get my laptop, which I’d retrieved from the van earlier, and settled onto the bar in the kitchen that looked like the place granite top surfaces aspired to when they grew up.
I’d been on the verge of calling my grandmother a couple of times, but finally decided to write about what had happened since Matt had messaged me the day before. Grandmother worried, but she also was remarkably perceptive and had a knowledge about the Fae that put my own to shame. She still wanted me to follow in her footsteps and become a doctor, but for a number of reasons I felt very uncomfortable about that.
And yet, my programming career wasn’t exactly blazing a brilliant arc - I was certainly good enough, but my code tended to take on a life of its own that had come back to haunt me more than once - the accounting code that decided to spontaneously call the SEC and report in detail (using an artificially generated text to speech voice (Alice, I believe)) all of the shady things the bank in question was doing. The CEO and CFO ended up doing 16 years for embezzlement, the bank’s stock shares collapsed, and not surprisingly, I never got paid for the work that I’d done. I never set out to write ethical software, but that’s what came out.
My phone rang at that moment, and grandmother’s voice came out to complete the thought “Serves you right, girl. You have magic in your veins, and you’re far too ethical for your own good.”
“Let me finish, Bran. You knew that bank was doing shady business to begin with and the magic knew. You can’t afford to deceive yourself, because the magic … always … knows. Now, what is this about a mermaid?”
“How’d you know what I was thinking?”
“You think you’re the only one who’s been touched by magic, girl? Start using that brain inside that head of yours. Now about that mermaid …?”
I knew there was a reason I was dubious about giving Grandmother a call. She had a talent for positively shredding self-confidence.
I hit the highlights, including the bullet injury and treatment, and every so often I could hear the scratching of a pencil in her notebook. It was a habit she’d taught me as well - for all that computers are fast, notebooks are usually more convenient for capturing notes, and the process of transcription provided a good filter to put the initial thoughts into a salient form. “And that pretty much sums it up.”
“Sounds like you took the right course of action. Fully fae mers have blue blood, by the way, but most of them have long since moved to Elfheim - they may not even be able to live on Earth anymore. You might, if you have the Sight, see them in very remote areas, but the big metal container ships would be practically lethal to them. Llorana’s close enough to being human that if she takes a human mate, there’s a high probability the child will appear human. It also means that you can probably treat her with human drugs, though I would monitor her carefully.”
“Just be careful. The Fae merfolk are the embodiment of the spirit of the seas - beautiful, capricious, vain and even less moral than cats, as difficult as that may be to believe. However, that can also describe a lot of human women, and given her halfling status, she may very well run completely counter to type.”
“Grandmother … I think she may have been raped.”
There was a pause on the other end. “Damn.
Another pause. “Tell me the symptoms.”
I described what I’d seen, as well as the reactions that she’d had to Matt.
“Joy. Welcome to the world of medical ethics. If she was human, then I’d recommend taking her to get to a doctor and get support from several agencies in the area that deal with battered and abused women, including rape victims, as well as have you get in touch with the police. Unfortunately, she isn’t. Nor are you a doctor. That means that legally you could walk away from the whole situation right now, with no repercussions on you.”
“But that’s not the right thing to do, not with the halflings.”
“I told you you were too ethical for your own good. Not that I’d expect anything less.”
Grandmother paused again, though I suspected it was just to gather her thoughts. “She’s your patient, Bran, and I think you know it. There are no fae clinics, just a few healer witches and wizards who are far too stretched. There are a couple of people who I may be able to get to help you from the University, but it will take a while to get a hold of them. Until then …”
“Thank you, grandmother.”
“You’ll be fine, Bran. Gotta go. Patients of my own.”
The line went dead, though I could hear the unsaid conversation still echoing in my head. She had been less than approving about me going into computers, not because she doubted my ability but because I think she had wanted me to continue my medical studies. When I was still in grad school, I’d been far more fascinated by magic and coding and how the two related than in medicine, though because of the rather clandestine nature of the former I ended up working in the Linguistics department. Grandmother had been very puzzled by that.
“Linguistics is the study of languages, semantics and semiotics. Semantics focused on the meanings of things, and there was some very critical computational work being done in natural language processing and semantics at the University, while semiotics was all about symbols, their origins and derivations. There’s a physical aspect to magic (and I know some junior professors there who are doing some very interesting work in that field, albeit like me clandestinely), but there’s also a symbolic aspect to magick that is critical in understanding how to make use of it,”
“Branwen,” grandmother had said in exasperation, “yes, of course it does, but do you really want to be an academic that can’t publish their work legitimately? Besides, you have real talent, girl, as a doctor, and there are so few of us out there.”
Perhaps it had been that expectation that I’d been rebelling against at the time, perhaps it had simply been prescience, which my grandmother had in spades and I … didn’t. Perhaps it was because everyone else seemed perfectly comfortable calling me Bree but she had insisted on addressing me as Branwen, my real name. I’m not sure which, but I was too headstrong at the time to go her way, and it had led to some uncomfortable silence over the years that only thawed a little bit when I started carrying my medical bag around with me again.
Now … I eyed the sturdy kit bag sitting next to my laptop. I seemed doomed to be drawn in both directions, unless … I could figure out how to effectively combine the two. The programming bug had caught me again, and I started to think about the human body in semiotic terms. Certainly there was a great deal of magical theory that made use of similar associations, from Chinese Chi theory to Kabbalism, and I pulled a library I’d started that broke down many of these constructs into a set of symbolic tokens and bindings - a programming language of sorts. I entered fugue state … that half-mystical part of the subconscious mind where writers and programmers both retreated to when working out ideas, and it was only the sound of Matt coming back with the supplies that made me check my laptop’s clock. I hissed when I realized more than three hours had passed.
Matt dropped the supplies on the island in the kitchen and smirked at me. “You have fugue hair.”
I switched on the camera on my laptop, my workaday mirror, and winced. I’d been running my fingers through my hair, my glasses were slightly askew, and I looked like I’d been mainlining caffeine. Fugue hair.
“And this is why women don’t go into programming,” I muttered, switching the cam back off.
“So what are you working on so industriously?”
“I’m not really quite sure. If it works, it’ll allow me to do a bioscan of your other guest. If it doesn’t, one of us might blow up.”
“Oh, I get it … you’re working on a demo!”
“Yup,” I replied, flipping the lid shut. “I’ll need to be in the same room as … Llorana.”
I stocked up on some of the supplies Matt had brought, then started back to her room, but Matt stopped me with a hand on my shoulder.
“You’re kidding about how it might blow one of us up instead, right?”
“Yes, of course I am,” I lied. Okay, no one would blow up, but I couldn’t be absolutely sure we wouldn’t be opening up an interdimensional rift or something like that. The symbols for GATE and QUERY were close enough in form to be disturbing.
I was a little surprised to see Matt’s sister Lena on the bed curled up next to Llorana and sound asleep in a large t-shirt and panties. Lena had worn her hair up in a bun when we came home, but it now floated loose around her like a pale cloud, gold to Llorana’s platinum silver. Llorana spooned next to her, her tailfin wrapped around Lena’s legs. Matt’s eyes opened wide.
We both left the room, closing the door quietly, then knocked loudly enough to wake them. I called out, “I need to check Llorana’s bandages through the door.”
After a couple of frantic seconds, I heard Lena’s somewhat shaky “Come in!”
Lena was back on the chair, wearing the white blouse and black skirt she’d had on before, her hair in a pony tail. Given how precisely she normally dressed, it was easy to see that she’d rushed getting her clothes on, though I was still impressed how quickly she had (and guessed the t-shirt had been hastily pushed under the bed covers.
Llorana on the other hand still looked sleepy, but more alert than she had earlier. She also seemed to be in a bit less pain. With the mermaid’s permission, I hiked up the night gown to expose the wound on her midriff, undid the bandages enough to pull a blood stained compress away and replaced it with a fresh one. The bleeding had stopped, and while the sewn wound still looked ugly, there were signs that the accelerated healing of the fae worked for mermaids as well.
“I’m going to put one more set of dressing on the wound, though I think you’ve pretty much stopped bleeding. I’d also like to do a quick scan on you to make sure that I’m not inadvertently poisoning you by not understanding mer physiology, if that’s okay with you.”
She nodded, curious, as I brought my laptop over. I clipped the external camera on to the top of the unit, along with the ceramic pentagram that plugged into the USB port on the side of my laptop. It had started life as a coffee cup warmer, but I’d replaced the heating element with a set of chips including one that had started life as an Analog to Digital signal processor but now served as an auxillary Magical Processing Unit, or MPU. Very discretely, I poked myself with a small medical needle, touching the drop of blood onto the Pentacle’s surface, then, cotton gauze covering the tiny wound, I powered the assembly up.
As it ran through its initialization routines, Pixel materialized in swirl of fluorescent lights, springing up and out of the pentagram and settling on the top of my laptop, just to the left of the camera, her luminous wings beating gently in a faint breeze.
I blinked for a moment as I realized that everyone was now very fixated on the pixie.
“What is …?” Matt finally asked, breaking the silence.
“An autonomous, self-directed system agent,” I said. The blank stares continued.
“It’s a pixie familiar I created to help me do magic,” I said, and now everyone in the room nodded in understanding. Gaaaah, mundanes! Be precise and technical, and it will go over their heads, but explain that it’s magic, and that they understand. I fought to not shake my head.
“Okay, think of this as just another kind of medical scanner, and don’t be worried about the light show. You may want to move your tail out from under the bedsheets, though,” I said, aiming the camera to take all of Llorana in as she flopped her tail out from beneath the covers. She kept curling the fin in a way that made it very clear it was organic, not just a very elaborate costume.
“Say cheese!” I said brightly, and pressed the magic button (actually the Run Script button, but, what the hey …). At first, not much happened, then Pixel hopped up (with a look that almost could be interpreted as annoyance) as a blue glow enshrouded her. Her eyes flowed the same brilliant blue for a moment before she flew over to the mermaid and started a helical arc that started at Llorana’s tail, wrapped around underneath the mermaid and through the bed, then back around in a new loop about a handspan closer to her head, leaving a trail of blue luminescence in the sprite’s wake. As she did so, displays began opening up on my laptop - skeletal and muscular structures, biochemical analysis, as well as strength analysis of magical fields and surface anatomy. I watched, just a bit smug, then started thinking about ways that I could tweak the program to get more information.
Meanwhile, Llorana, Matt and Lena were mesmerized by the light show. Of course - this thing was getting invaluable data, but it all came down to how much flash there was in the user interface.
“Do you feel anything?” I asked, as I shunted the data into files.
“It makes my skin a-tingly,” Llorana said, her eyes wide with both fascination and a bit of fear.
“That’s expected - it’s a lot like how an alternator coil works - the magic is interacting with the electric fields in your body, and your nerves are probably resonating to that. Nearly done.”
The signals were getting a little ragged as Pixel flew around her head - the magical construct really was autonomous and had its own power source, but the same currents that were making Llorana feel “a-tingly” were also draining from that source, faster than I had expected. Finally, I terminated the scan sequence, and Pixel flew back, though her flight was considerably more erratic than when she’d started. She settled on the cup-warmer turned pentacle and curled into a fetal position fading away as the program ended.
“I’m going to have to spend some time analysing this to make any sense of it, but I think this was a pretty good scan.”
I yawned, despite myself, and it occurred to me that it was now well into the evening.
“Do you want to stay the night, Bree?” Matt asked.
“No, I should probably get going home - I have some errands I need to take care of tomorrow. I can come back tomorrow afternoon, if that works for you.”
“Yes, of course. Let me take you home, then,” he replied, even as he grabbed his own coat. I started to protest, but the room swam around me a bit. The magic that powers Pixel comes partially from me … that’s always the true cost of magic. Grandmother suspected that the DNA in our blood acts as the key that creates a conduit between mage and magic, but that once the contract has been established, we pay for it with our own energy.
“That would be appreciated. Thanks.”
He handed me a box of Pepperidge Farm cookies and some fruit juice on our way out, along with a white paper box from a Chinese takeout with General Tso’s chicken in it for later. I was never quite sure which battle the general had been in, but he sure cooked good chicken.
As I closed the door behind me, I noticed that Lenore was holding Llorana’s hand again and they were talking quietly, the mermaid’s energy flagging with my own. I’d forgotten the magick lifelines I’d given her earlier to help her healing. Food, a bath and sleep all felt very attractive at the moment, as we pulled out of the driveway to head back to Seattle proper.