Daughter of Pearl
The tube of glass spans from floor to ceiling, a dark cylinder set into the wall, surrounded by bookshelves and encased with iron where it meets the floor, a panel inset with readouts and little arrows pointing to numbers Meredith has no understanding of, indicators lighting up at lazy intervals. She has worked here at Doctor Lovegore’s mansion for nearly two months now, and this is the first she’s seen of this room, where the Doctor in question often sequesters herself for hours on end.
…The creature within the glass. It’s beautiful.
Centrally within the glass floats an oyster shell the size of her head, or maybe larger, with barnacles bejeweling it’s ridges and a silvery sheen just below the matte, bumpy gray rings. She watches, both aghast and in awe, taking a step forward to watch as black, inky tentacles emerge nautilus like from the shell, dripping downward in shadow until they take a more solid form, with more barnacles and shells and strange shifting bubbling growths that seem just beneath the surface of the surely slimy skin. Two arms manifest, splitting off from the torso. A pair of glowing white eyes, completely circular, a head peering through the opening of the oyster shell. Long, kelpish hair, drifting as the shell bobs slightly.
The creature approaches the glass from its side, a gross facsimile of a hand outstretched.
The song stops.
“That’s how it says hello,” a voice grates to Meredith’s right. “Or so I posit. You’re the second human I’ve allowed in here to visit.”
Meredith jolts, hardly realizing Doctor Lovegore was present despite holding a tray of tea specifically for her. She wonders at the song that stopped, unable to recall its tune but finding herself with a certain… ache to hear it again. She gives the creature one final gawk before briskly approaching the Doctor’s desk with the tray, apologizing for her distraction.
Lovegore, with her dark, gray-streaked hair pulled into a tight bun and white plain skin that looks a little too stretched over her bones, refrains from looking up from her work. She wears a plain but surely expensive dress, dyed dark green, a plain black brooch at her throat. Meredith fails to understand the letters being written at a breakneck pace on the fresh pages, nib pen scratching with fervor in the room’s silence. She pours the woman’s tea in relative silence.
“Tell me, Meredith,” Lovegore says, pen paused. “Have you heard anything these past few months at night?”
“Er… nothing that I can recall, Doctor.” An odd question. “Will you need anything else with your tea?”
“Nothing?” She looks up sharply, dark eyes pinning her to the spot, one of the single circular spectacle glasses reflecting milky light from the window.
“No, Doctor. Nothing.”
“…Nothing that you can recall.”
Lovegore purses her lips momentarily, before writing more down. “Interesting. That will be all, you are dismissed.”
Meredith curtsies, brisk, and leaves the room in more of a hurry than she’d admit to. Her fingers are freezing and fumbling as she returns to the kitchen, warming them at the burning coals in the iron stove, and steadying her breathing, thoughts falling back on the creature, the song she’d unheard, and the Doctor’s rudeness. That woman is perhaps not the worst she’s served, but there’s an aspect to her that is especially grating, despite how little Meredith actually sees of her. Never so much a thought of kindness for her, or anyone else she’s entertained during Meredith’s working here.
She sighs, rubbing warmth into her fingers and beginning the task of preparing a dinner– nothing but fish these days. It makes sense, she supposes, being situated on a cliff overlooking a coastal town, mired in fog and gloom; food of the aquatic type is the most readily available resource for cooking, and Meredith is glad to be getting to know the local fishermen on her weekly market trips. Still, no variety in all her time here– Salmon, eggs, toast for breakfast, cod salad for lunch, crab pie or clam chowder for dinner. Caviar, lobster, or squid if there’s a guest.
However, Lovegore is not an overbearing monitor of the funds allowed her, or of her time off duty. Meredith has taken to purchasing the occasional red meat at the butcher’s for herself, and just this week she bought a cheap bottle of wine to celebrate her birthday. There’s still quite a bit left of it yet, and she plans to make it last long if only to assuage the guilt of purchasing outside of the list given to her.
It had been a quiet birthday, in her quarters, watching the candlelight flicker as her aching feet soaked in warm water, reading a book gifted to her some time ago by some lovelorn soldier she never caught the name of.
…The loneliness aches more than her cold fingers.
No other servants to gossip with, no friends in the port of cold, weather-worn people, no family or loved ones to speak of. At least in the last house she served in it was warm, there were other servants, and the family smiled at her, if only out of pretending to care for someone as low on the food chain as her.
In the chill of the kitchen, dinner is prepared, and the afternoon draws on. At precisely 7 the bell rings, signifying that she is needed to serve dinner in the dining hall, and she brings the steaming dishes through the hallways and up a short flight of stairs, and into the yawning room wherein sits Lovegore at the head of the table– flipping through a notebook and completely uninterested in her appearance. Most of the long dinner table is piled with books or bizarre instruments– a jar of cloudy liquid sits precariously close to Lovegore’s glass.
Dinner is served.
A dream comes to her in waves, a repeating thing that becomes more and more clear each time it washes over her– darkness. A warm darkness that overwhelms, and… bubbles. Bubbles not of reflected light, but of shadow, of something deeper. Black pearls, eyes, seeing her and seeing her. She is floating, sinking, with no indication of up or down, and yet she finds herself… content. Despite the watching eyes, it is… strange. Nice? Terrifying? Just beyond her comprehension? The waves come and go, and each time she sees a little more, and feels seen a little more, and she can’t help but sense a presence… somewhere…
She wakes, and the feeling of unhearing the mermaid’s song fills her senses.
It is a mermaid, after all, right? Some siren creature of the deep. She’d heard legend of such things, but never thought they were real. She sits up in her bed, a small room of shadow surrounding her, an unpleasantness in her soul that gives her the impression she won’t be returning to sleep. The clock on her bedside table ticks, dreadfully loud against the quiet of her mind.
Lovegore had introduced her to some of her work when she’d first arrived. Corpses of creatures from unknown places, things found by fishermen, things found by her… terrible, strange things that gave off an aura of unknowing, shifting existences. Stillborn creatures suspended in formaldehyde, yet brimming with a Presence. To be dusted by her, of course.
So, the mermaid had not surprised her nearly as much as it could have, seeing it all at once.
How long has it been here, in its glass cylinder? Or… her? Mermaids are traditionally women, she supposes. And it– she –had said hello to her upon her entrance? So it at least has some capability to think. Is it lonely? Does it have family? Other siren sisters?
She shakes her head.
These are silly thoughts to be having. It is a creature, Lovegore had assured her that if she were to have to… defend herself against any experiment, subject, or patient of hers, that she would have the right to do so. That anything that escapes her cages would be some unthinking, soulless creature, that the only thing with a soul in these halls… was her.
She had wanted to ask why Lovegore did not include herself as one of the souled beings here, but thought it rude and refrained. The master of the house is not one to be questioned, and Meredith has a spotless resume in this regard.
The night becomes morning, the day begins, and thoughts of mermaids leave the maid’s head.
She serves breakfast, she cleans dishes, takes stock of the pantry, tends to the calls of the occasional bell for tea and cakes, makes a list for the next market run, dusts and dusts and dusts and dusts… There is so much to dust and clean despite the fact she is not even allowed in at least half of the unused, surely decaying rooms. One wonders why one person would live with so much empty space.
The bell chimes for the private study of Doctor Lovegore. Not the library or the hall of specimens, the observatory, the psychomanteum, or the sitting room. The second day in a row, she is wanted there.
Now that she knows what to expect, she finds herself pausing to prepare the Doctor’s tea, and remembering glimpses of a dream.
The kettle boils, screaming, and she hardly senses that time has passed, jumping to pour water into the tea pot, and prepare the dark, bitter tea leaves to steep on the way to the study.
Her footsteps echo through the halls as she passes through the many empty spaces, her mind drifting to the thought of the song she can’t remember but knows she heard. She focuses the closer she gets, walking through the windowed bridge from main building to the tower of the private study, trying to hear, understand, discern any singing… but she only hears the wind outside and the occasional seagull’s call.
The door opens, and the mermaid greets her, already out of its shell, limbs formed and white eyes watching. Watching her. There is no doubt in her mind that it is watching her specifically. Meredith does her best not to stop and stare as she had the day prior, but she can’t help lingering eyes on the alien form.
“Your tea, Doctor.” She sets the tray down and pours a cup from the teapot as Lovegore peruses the shelves of books by the window.
“I’ve had a peculiar craving for pastries, this morning,” Lovegore announces with no fanfare. “Make sure we have the appropriate supplies.”
“Yes, Doctor. Will that be all?”
A finger pulls a thick tome from the shelves, and is opened, Lovegore’s back to her.
“Two things, Meredith,” Lovegore says, turning back to her desk, and holding up a finger for each point. “One: if you notice anything in your day or psyche that seems to be off, do not hesitate to inform me. Two: dusting of this room is now permitted, though I ask you take care with the fragile instruments. I never use this room the first half of the day, I trust you will reschedule yourself accordingly.”
“Of course, Doctor.”
Lovegore pauses, glances at her. It is a horrid thing to be glanced at by her, though Meredith has no real reason for thinking so. For a moment she worries that the Doctor has noticed the extra purchases and has decided now to reprimand her, but her words dissuade that particular fear.
“Tell me, Meredith, for I am quite curious. Why haven’t you quit?”
“I am quite blunt. My work is quite strange. Repulsive, even. And the house is large for a single maid. Why are you still here?”
“I…” She searches for words, mouth open and closed, unsure of how to answer. In all honesty? She doesn’t know. Lovegore is right, and Meredith… hasn’t even thought about leaving. Where else would she go? She’s only here because of a recommendation from her prior house, where the servants outnumbered the family and she was ballast to lighten the load.
“No matter,” Lovegore dismisses when she takes too long to answer. “I suppose I shouldn’t ask. It took long enough for me to find you, I can’t imagine I’ll find another maid who will stay around as long as you have. Do let me know in advance when you’ll be leaving, please. The last maid left in the middle of the night.”
“I… assure you I am managing fine, Doctor. Will that be all?”
Her look lingers on her a moment longer before she begins paging through her book again. “That is all, you are dismissed.”
Meredith curtsies, and leaves the room in a polite rush. The door closed behind her, she stands in the windowed hallway, catching her breath.
She looks out the windows, at the seagulls perched on the roofs.
What an odd woman. What an odd place.
Rain patters on the tarpaulin coverings over the marketplace in town, a backdrop to the voices calling for the attention of buyers of fish, food, tools and other such goods. The fish section is the largest section, and where Meredith spends most of the grocery run anyway. She’s found that the old fisherman with the missing eye is the easiest to buy from, and has some of the better quality fish, as his ship regularly comes into port the morning of the market. Fresh fish, better food.
“There ye are,” the fisherman grunts, a week’s worth of fish wrapped in parchment and stashed in her basket. “Best ye be on your way now. Before the rain gets any worse.”
She offers a grim smile. “Thank you, sir. I do hope you don’t get too wet out here.”
He huffs. “Drier than bein’ out on the sea. Off with ye.”
He’s one of the nicer ones. She has yet to discover his name.
Walking through the streets on a weekly basis now, Meredith has begun to notice things. The people here look at her. When they think she’s not looking, they glance her way, and the women grow hush when she walks by. The men smoking outside taverns mutter under their breath as she passes, but never has anyone approached her. A few times she’s caught the words ‘Lovegore’s latest’ whispered erratically.
It’s an uncomfortable feeling, like they’re just waiting for something to happen. For her to quit, or become some terrible experiment of Lovegore’s. No wonder the maid before her left in such a hurry.
The wind tugs at her umbrella, but she keeps it close, glad for a reason not to look at other people, or really where she’s going.
Her feet, now, wander a little out of her way.
The vast expanse of the ocean crashes against the pier columns, a dark gray green under the rain clouds above. She is alone on the pier– who would want to stand out here in the wet and wind, cold and shivering? But she finds herself drawn here, and reminded of her dream, of the mermaid.
Is this where Lovegore found the mermaid?
… Does the mermaid have a name?
She lingers on the question, endlessly curious with no way of knowing. She also lingers in the physical realm, a little too long, as when she remembers to walk back to the mansion, the rain has lightened and her hair and skirts are absolutely drenched, not to mention the parchment wrapped around the fish. Her cheeks flush at the panic of being late and ruining the day’s schedule by daydreaming too long, and, her umbrella closed, she hurries back to the mansion, the dark gray clouds lightening to the color of old dusty book pages.
The Doctor’s private study is quiet. It always seems to be, in her few appearances here. But even in the quiet, without Lovegore in the room, there’s an overwhelming presence that makes it difficult for Meredith to want to stay in there long– and it’s not just the mermaid. The tall shelves of books are imposing monoliths that cramp the place in shadows and dust, the desk by the tall windows, draped on either side by long black curtains… the knick knacks and tools she can’t discern uses for.
The mermaid in its glass container… watches.
It watches her as she roams the room, unblinking. It had already been emerged from… her shell upon Meredith’s entry, as if she knew Meredith was to be expected. Meredith does her best to ignore the mermaid, frankly. She just wants to get the cleaning done with so that she can pretend the rest of her day is a life of normalcy… but she is impossible to completely ignore.
Too many fingerlike tendrils tap against the mermaid’s side of the glass, a steady metronome for a silent song.
She strains her ears for the siren song, but hears nothing.
Foolish. She must have imagined the song.
Still, however hard she tries to ignore the mermaid, that particular facade breaks when she comes to clean the glass itself, a rag and cleaner in hand, a step stool set up somewhat precariously on the stairs leading up to the glass cylinder and its panel of readouts.
She finds herself face to face with the mermaid.
This close, with nothing but and inch of glass to separate, she can see better the tentacled mouth and inky coloring around pearlescent, glowing eyes.
It takes some courage to breathe.
She isn’t sure why she greets it, but the deed is done.
The mermaid does not react.
Her fingers just continue to tap, tap, tap, tap.
Meredith feels the greeting to be enough of a conversation, and thus begins to clean the glass with renewed determination to ignore the creature. The mermaid watches, and moves to always be face to face with her, and the discomfort only grows the longer Meredith works.
The final swipe of her rag leaves her hand on the glass for a moment, and she finds that the mermaid moves her own hand to touch the glass opposite hers. Though there is no contact between them, Meredith jerks her hand back in shock. The movement is enough to topple her stool and send her flying backwards with a short cry. She lands with a sharp pain in her ribs, the air punched out of her lungs.
The mermaid only watches as she lays there, staring at the ceiling, grimacing.
The damage isn’t so bad that she should be incapacitated. The longer she lays there, the more she knows she could easily get up and go about the rest of her day. But will it even be worth it, to do so?
Eventually she wills herself to sit, groaning at the pain. It could have been a worse fall, there’s no doubt in her mind. In her old house one of the gardeners had fallen from two stories up, taking care of some overgrown ivy… the worst injury she thinks she’s taken is a jab at her pride.
And her hair is a little out of sorts, but that is easily taken care of.
Her hand goes to the ground to steady herself and pick herself up, but she finds that it has touched something small, hard, round. A pearl. She finds a small pearl on the floor, milky white and polished. Surprisingly heavy for something so small. It glistens in the cold gray light from the window, though it isn’t wet and has an oily iridescence to it… resembling the look of the mermaid’s inky tendrils.
She gives a glance at the mermaid, eyes meeting hers.
Footsteps from the outside hall shock her into quickly standing and pocketing the pearl into her apron, rushing to pick up her things and get herself sorted. The door opens just as she goes for the doorknob. Lovegore nearly walks right into her, surprise on her face as she comes to a halt.
“M-my apologies, Doctor, I’m just on my way,” Meredith half curtsies, arms full with her supply bucket and step stool. “You should find everything to be in order, Doctor. Pardon me.”
Meredith again clumsily curtsies and rushes out of the room as gracelessly as she thinks possible.
It is only that night, after she’s changed into her nightgown, that she remembers the pearl in her apron pocket.
The days pass on, and Meredith finds her thoughts increasingly returning to the mermaid. There is something curious about it, the way it watches her whenever she comes in to clean. It doesn’t feel malicious, not any more, anyway. It’s like… she wants to know more. Admittedly, Meredith would like to know more about the mermaid too.
So much so that she asks it a question.
“Do you have a name?”
There is no immediate answer, and the mermaid only continues to stare, occasionally tapping on the glass, drifting silently in her glass prison.
But that night… she dreams.
She dreams of a name bigger than the stars and deeper than the ocean, a name more powerful than a storm and darker than midnight– the name eats her up like a ship at sea, overwhelming in all its glory and incomprehensible in her minuteness. She flounders in the name, reaching for a breath that is not there and a surface that does not exist in the inky deepness of her dream.
Only when she wakes in her bed, coughing up salt water and drenched to the bone, does her mind grasp a name that can be spoken on her tongue.
The words are uttered with a reverence Meredith is unused to.
She is late to her daily duties, but only by a few minutes. It had taken some time to take care of her brine-covered sheets and for her to wrap her mind around the fact that… that this all had happened. That her dream had entered reality and she’d nearly drowned in her sleep– throat still raw as she toils over breakfast and runs the day’s activities through her head, avoiding the obvious disturbing events as much as possible.
Lovegore, for all her brilliance, does not notice anything different about her. And Meredith offers up nothing except for her services and a plate of poached eggs, salmon, and toast for Lovegore’s breakfast.
It eats at her, that she should tell Lovegore of this. But… perhaps a part of her is a little spiteful. Lovegore didn’t ask, didn’t notice her shaking hands or hoarse voice, why should she tell her? She doesn’t deserve to know it, not when she’s hardly spared her a courtesy in Meredith’s entire career here.
So, no. She doesn’t tell Lovegore.
And the days find themselves falling into place, a strangeness becoming a normalcy.
A week passes, and Meredith finds that her little jewelry box on her humble vanity is near to overflowing with pearls found during her cleaning– white ones, pink ones, black and green ones, spheres and lumps, like strange deposits of seeing shapes. Not quite eyes, but not quite a simple pearl. It is very firm in her mind that these are tokens from Nacra. Gifts? Spying eyes? Curses?
Whatever they are, she collects them, and wonders if they’re worth anything.
Meredith speaks to Nacra as she works in the private study. She is… wary of asking questions, not sure if she wants a repeat of the dream, but finds it easy to speak the things she feels to a more or less empty room. At the very least it’s nice to think that Nacra is listening to her, though she taps ever steadily on the glass, and is always watching her movements, never showing a sign of comprehension or thought.
She wonders at that pausing with a rag on the glass of the container.
“You must be very lonely.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She taps where her hand rests on the glass, and Meredith does not jerk away this time.
“Did you…” She huffs, still uncertain. “I have so many questions. I’ve long since come to terms with the existence of… of things I would only hear of in legends and fairy tales. But…” She steels herself. “Where did you come from?”
For once, the tapping pauses.
Nacra’s gaze is unrepentant as usual, but without the tapping Meredith finds herself unnerved again, skin shivering with goosebumps.
“…I hope that was not too much to ask,” she says after a moment, returning to her work with some difficulty. She sighs. The tapping resumes. “I’m just… so lonely, I suppose I can sympathize with you. At my old house, the halls were always busy and filled with life. But I suppose even there I was still lonely in a different way.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
“I guess we’re both trapped here, hm?” She half smiles at the watching eyes. “I have nothing outside of this dreadful place. If I left I’d be a beggar on the streets. No family to my name. Nothing to my name, really. Except for those pearls, you’ve given me… those are from you, right? Ah, no matter. I suppose I could sell them for a pretty penny.”
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She looks around the empty study, perched on her precarious stool, hand resting on the glass.
“…I don’t think I will sell them, though. It’s not often I am given such lovely gifts.”
Her ear perks at the sound of footsteps nearing, and the conversation is dropped as she gathers her things quickly, scolding herself for taking so long today. She really tries her best not to be seen by Doctor Lovegore if she can help it, but her time in the study with Nacra seems to go by so fast.
“Doctor,” she curtsies.
“Stay a moment, if you will.” Lovegore enters the room fully, walking towards her desk. While her back is turned, Meredith gives Nacra a worried look. Nacra only watches, tapping paused.
“Of course, Doctor. What do you need of me?”
“I will be going into town on business for the indeterminate future. There are people who need my skills and things I must study in the meantime. I will no longer be needing a lunch service, but I will need meals packed. Also, though I doubt this to be the case, I may ask you to join me if matters become especially dire.”
“Rumors. We will see if any of them have any substance to them.”
“…I see.” A pause. “Will that be all, Doctor?”
Lovegore opens a book with some force, distracted. “Yes… oh, a question for you: no strange occurrences at night? No sounds? Strange dreams?”
Meredith doesn’t pause. “No, Doctor. Nothing.”
“Hm. Interesting. Good. You are dismissed.”
A final curtsy, and Meredith is free of the interaction. Oddly enough, she finds that her heart is not racing at the thought of having lied to the master of the house.
That night, she dreams of the depths. Warm, hot vents of celestial waters bursting from tiers of ashy, nebulous matter, and though she cannot breathe, cannot comprehend the weight crushing her in this space, she finds it deep and dark and beautiful. And there are stars here. Many, many stars.
Nacra… is one of them.
And she is stunning.
It would be a sin to try and put to words what cannot be comprehended, but Meredith tries anyway, words even more difficult to grasp in the dreaming than in the waking– starlight tendrils, deep dark eyes, vaporous song, an endless gaze… none of it fits, none of it will ever fit, but it’s the best Meredith can do to try and see the eyes that see so much of her.
And in this dream, Meredith finds that she has a form now, one of small, frail flesh and bone, and a dress that isn’t hers, but one she’s always wanted, one that the ladies she’s served have sat in so elegantly, pictures of purity and pristine beauty… something she’s never had. Strings of pearls, hundreds if not thousands, float out around her in the inky depths.
The weight is crushing her, but she can only think about how nice this feels, and how she’s never felt like this before.
And Nacra is close, an envelopment of curling tendrils and glowing eyes.
Warmth and radiance and unimaginable depth emanate from her form.
And there are many forms– Nacra’s sisters.
Meredith can’t breathe.
She can’t breathe.
Her eyes shoot open and she can’t breathe.
Water fills her throat and nose and eyes, and it isn’t until she falls off her bed, struggling, that any of it dislodges and she coughs and vomits sea water onto the floor of her quarters, her hair and clothes heavy with the freezing cold liquid. She half sobs, half laughs as she wipes water from her eyes, trembling from the shock and near-delirium of not having enough air.
Nacra does listen.
And such a being should look at her? See her? Meredith, of all the lowly creatures of the world?
Despite now empty lungs, she still finds it hard to breathe.
There’s not nearly enough time to clean up her room or herself before her duties must begin. Deep, ragged breaths come to her as she hurries to compose herself, hurries to towel off her hair and hang up her wet clothes, hurries down stairs as fast as she can to tend to Lovegore before it’s too late…
Her voice is quieter, rougher, today when addressed, and she surely must stink of sea water… yet Lovegore notices nothing.
Absolutely nothing. She is simply buried in her books, studies, or just not there at all. It’s an honest relief– Meredith has no idea what Lovegore would do should Meredith tell her of the dreams, the water, the conversations with the mermaid. The pearls.
The pearls. There are so many of them, Meredith doesn’t know what to do with them. She finds them everywhere, and she has no idea how Lovegore hasn’t seen them yet– her apron pockets practically bulge with them if she isn’t careful. They’re on bookshelves and in corners, on windowsills and rugs– she’d even found one in the mouth of a bust once. It’s both mystifying and flattering… Meredith almost thinks she might be spoiled with them at this point.
She pours the current day’s gifts into a small lockbox– her old jewelry box simply wasn’t cutting it any more –and stands in the center of her room. Despite the open window, her bed is still damp, and her floor still a mess. It looks as if the place were the room on a sunken ship rather than in the attic of a cold, lonely mansion. Her feet ache at the thought of fetching anything to clean the mess up with. She sighs, a hand dragging down her face.
How is it that such strange things can feel so mundane?
She shakes her head, and forgoes the bed entirely, instead taking out her bottle of wine she’s harbored so long, and making her way into the humble powder room where she decides a hot bath will be better than a cold bed. A temporary fix, sure, but it’s been so long since she’s given herself a moment to relax.
Frankly, her bathroom is nowhere near as spacious as the guest bathrooms and powder rooms meant for high class guests and the master herself, but it is certainly a step up from the shared space of her old house. At least here, it’s just her, and the water is actually hot.
She turns on the faucet until the water is steaming in the lamp light, and she yawns, waiting for the tub to fill up enough for her to submerge. In the meantime, she sits on a stool and takes a drink of wine from the bottle– a glass would just be silly at this point. The bitter taste gives way to warmth and a slumping of shoulders.
Weariness emanates through each muscle as she sits there, watching the water rise through half lidded eyes, nursing a bottle and stretching blistered, bruised feet. The faucet shuts off, and she undresses, submerging herself into the hot water.
“What will become of me here?” She mutters under her breath before she dunks her head under the water completely, staying there a moment, squinting at the blurry lamp-gold light. Her dark hair, now undone from its tight braid, resembles the mermaid’s tendrils, floating out above her. She wonders at the thought of touching Nacra. Would the texture of her skin be like the squid tentacles she’s prepared on rare occasions guests are staying? Or would it be more like trying to grasp at smoke or water, impossible to touch?
And then, a thought that surprises her: what would kissing Nacra be like?
The thought doesn’t linger long, but the sensation of it does, and she… is too tired to examine that much further.
‘What will become of me here?’ The question echoes in her mind.
She knows she has no choice of leaving or staying… but will she truly be able to keep up with this? A lone maid in charge of everything just to take care of one cold, uncaring person? The thought of that alone leaves an even more bitter taste on her tongue than the wine.
…She has no choice, though. Not unless she wants to die on the streets.
Not unless she wants to leave Nacra all alone here.
She comes back up for air, shivering at the now cold air on her face.
Nacra is one good thing about this place, she thinks. Perfect and beautiful and… warm. Sad. Lonely, like her. Outcast, like her. Forgotten.
She’s not sure what will become of her here, but perhaps she can find out another time, and perhaps Nacra will be a part of that future.
With the Doctor out during the days, Meredith finds herself visiting Nacra daily, if only for brief in between moments where she dare spare time not doing chores. It is strange– she’s never been one to shirk her responsibilities, even for a moment, but without the looming, frostbitten presence of Lovegore potentially around each corner, she finds it acceptable to just… breathe. And be. And smile at Nacra, who continues to tap the glass and look and fill her dreams and lungs with the ocean waves.
Except… this morning, she did not find herself simply coughing up water and nursing a sore throat– this morning, there is something in her throat, something she has to cough terribly to get out until it pitter patters onto the floor in front of her.
A single, solitary pearl.
Black, iridescent, and small.
It stares at her, her reflection warped but clear in its pure surface.
She clutches her throat, fingers colder than before.
What is Nacra doing to her?
She is slower in her chores today, noting the pearls that sweep into the dust catcher with the rest of the debris. She’s reached the point where keeping the pearls would be pointless– even if she wanted to sell the ones she had, she’d be more than well off… and she’s running out of space to keep them anyway. Nacra understands, she thinks. And yet, she continues to bestow the gifts upon her mercilessly.
Will the same happen with her throat? Will pearls manifest there? In her belly, in her heart, in her veins, until she is nothing but a doll of skin and bones and pearls and pearls and pearls?
“I don’t know how much you know of human anatomy,” she says, holding the black pearl in front of the mermaid’s keep. “But we don’t… grow pearls. Or breathe water. Why…” The unasked question lingers in the air.
She huffs, and sits down at the side of the glass cylinder, perched on a small stair.
“You are so kind to me. I wish I could return the favor. No one has ever been so kind to me in all my life and all I can do is sit here and worry and… I’m sorry. This is silly.”
The tapping pauses. She glances at Nacra.
“I don’t know why you treat me so kindly. But perhaps I should be more concerned about finding a pearl in my throat. I could choke. I could die. You don’t want to kill me, do you?”
Nacra would never do such a thing, though.
And the dream ensuing from the question confirms this knowledge, a dream of being held within a bubble, a pearl, a safe embrace, only to wake her up with three pearls on her tongue and a barrage of water in her eyes, nose, and throat.
Nacra does not want to kill her.
“What do you want?”
It is the first thing she asks upon her next entrance into the study. The Doctor has still been gone for the days, treating some scourge in the town, but she has been around enough for Meredith to still feel on edge.
The mermaid, for once, cocks her head at her, as if the answer to her question were obvious.
And the answer is suddenly obvious to her, without the aid of a dream or pearls or seawater.
She wants to go home.
She wants to be free.
She wants… her.
Meredith’s hands tremble briefly at the realization, lips pursed and eyes wide.
The gifts, the tapping, the watching, the dreams. They were all a conversation, a trying to understand, a question posited to her. A terrible unknowable siren who only wants to see a human at her side.
Meredith shuts her mouth, looking at the floor.
In a rush of skirts she leaves the study, hugging herself tight, not sure whether to smile or to cry.
There are no dreams that night.
Rain falls on the streets of the port town in large, heavy drops, reminding Meredith far too much of Nacra’s pearls, the growths that seem to see from beneath her skin’s surface. It finally happened– Doctor Lovegore had finally needed her assistance in a visit to the town. In the Doctor’s last visit, it seems a particularly roguish patient had caused a minor hand injury and left her bandaged and in a bad mood. Meredith has never considered herself overtly afraid of the older woman, but she is afraid of losing her job, and Lovegore currently holds her fate in a bruised and bloody grip.
Still, she holds the umbrella and the bag of utensils, making sure the good doctor does not get drenched by the rain.
What Meredith sees of the scourge itself is unsettling to say the least– it seems to affect the poor folks’ eyes the most. Not just blinding, but something seems to be… growing within the confines of the seeing organs. Lovegore had only partially explained her dissection of a corpse’s eyes and her findings, and Meredith is glad that she hadn’t explained it in full. Just seeing it is enough to make her squeamish.
Lovegore can only do so much to the afflicted to help as of yet. None of the people she visits seem particularly happy to see her, more desperate to save a soul who’s work, livelihood, and family depend on sight. Meredith can’t blame them, really. Lovegore isn’t a woman who cares much for reputation, nor does she have a particularly good bedside manner. She enters a house, does what she can for the ill, asks her questions, and moves on to the next house.
Meredith does what she can to ease tensions, but it isn’t much when her profession requires speaking only when spoken to, and doing one’s best to remain nothing but a shadow, unseen.
The day draws on, and Meredith longs for return to the place she now calls home. Every now and then, walking between houses on wet, cobbled streets, she catches a glimpse of the cliffs the mansion resides upon. Nothing much, only just the roof tops or a tower, but she finds it… odd, to know that the house is a constant watcher of the town. She wonders if Nacra senses her, somehow. She knows not the extent of the mermaid’s abilities, but if the conjuring of pearls and the manifesting of dreams is what she is capable of, all alone and void of comforts, strength… she wouldn’t put it past her to be hiding away further power.
Perhaps, even, she is somehow behind the scourge of the poor town.
That idea, Meredith finds, is not a pleasant one.
No, Nacra is a kind soul. Should would not do this. Not on purpose.
“Meredith. Meredith.” The Doctor’s voice, cross, cuts off her thoughts. “It is getting late. This is our last stop. Time to go.”
“Of course, Doctor, my apologies.” She hurries to follow the woman, umbrella held aloft, arm aching from doing so all day.
A carriage waits for them a few streets over– parked there at the beginning of the day, not worth it to have it follow them house to house –a hired driver surely bored out of his mind waiting for them but glad for the pay. The two women retrace their path through the streets, skies dimming to a bruised sort of cloudy evening. Only in glimpses between buildings towards the ocean is a sliver of golden light visible where the clouds manage to miss the horizon.
“A token, a token, for a blinded beggar,” a wounded voice calls softly from the street side. An older man in rags begs, a ratty blanket just as damp and rain-soaked as the rest of him. Across his eyes, more rags.
To Meredith’s surprise, Doctor Lovegore pauses in front of him. He inclines his head, hearing the pause of footsteps.
“A token, any will do, anything at all,” he says, tired and weary.
“Might I ask what blinded you, man?” Lovegore asks.
A strange look comes across his face then. “What else? The damn scourge. It took me sight a morning of dreadful cold out here in the streets.” He frowns, again inclining towards the Doctor. “Hardly a sighted beggar left in port, Doctor.”
Lovegore muses. Meredith feels a chill run up her spine. A town of blind beggars, and she hadn’t even noticed.
“Your symptoms are of the scourge, then.”
“Did you not hear me? Do you have nothing but words for a blind, hungry man?”
“I would like to see your eyes.”
He scowls. But what else is he to do? He tugs down the rags, leaving Meredith to turn her face away. It is the scourge, well developed. Glassy eyes, moonlike and distant, black crust forming around the edges of the eyelids. Lovegore kneels down, adjusting her glasses and peering at the unseeing eyes.
“I see.” Lovegore doesn’t seem to sense the irony in the statement. “My apologies. I can do nothing for you in this regard.”
She goes to stand up, but before she can do so, the man’s hand shoots out and grabs at her, landing with a tight grip on her wrist.
A terrible sneer lights up the man’s face.
“Monster.” He spits, not letting go. “You’ve damned us all.”
A tense moment passes. Lovegore tears her hand away, and begins marching off.
Meredith finds herself, almost without thinking, drawing out a small clutch of pearls from her apron pocket, and placing them in the man’s hand.
“Sorry,” she says, before rushing to catch up with Lovegore.
Lovegore does not wait for her, only continuing to walk to the carriage. The remaining walk is swift and Meredith aches as she takes her seat across from the Doctor, who indicates to the driver to take off for the mansion. The quiet pulls at them like a too-taught string sitting on the edge of a knife.
“What did you give him?” Lovegore asks, string snapping.
Meredith opens her mouth to speak, only for a pearl to fall out, and land lifelessly in her lap. She covers her mouth in shock. Lovegore sits up straighter, somehow.
“…You have spoken with the mermaid.”
“I– I–“ She blinks frantically, heart pounding in her chest.
Lovegore plucks the pearl from her lap, observing it. She frowns.
“You say you have not had dreams. Or heard things. And yet there is a pearl. The only conclusions are that it is playing a stranger sort of trick on me, or that you have lied.”
There is no anger in her words. She sounds more… annoyed. Annoyed at Meredith, for her lying? Or annoyed with herself, for not paying attention? Or annoyed at Nacra, for tainting an otherwise useful maid?
“No matter.” Lovegore looks out the window. “I have plans to dispose of the creature tomorrow evening– I fear it is behind the scourge of the town.”
Meredith feels as if her heart has stopped beating.
“D-Dispose?” She blinks, fighting the urge to keep quiet. “Will she be returned to the ocean?”
Lovegore looks at her, curious. “I am going to kill it. It is weak above ground, and yet I believe it is growing to adapt. Hence the scourge. A shame– it is the only specimen of mine that comes so close to being of such an eldritch nature. I would have liked to study it more.” Something seems to come to her then. “You have spoken to it, or so I believe. What do you know?”
A sour sort of pain constricts Meredith’s throat, not seawater or pearls. But dread.
“I… I don’t know if I can say, Doctor. I have only. The dreams…” She swallows, hands shaking in her lap. She has lied before, she feels now that she must continue lying. To keep up her facade of a naive maid given only glimpses of what she cannot know.
Lovegore hums. “We will pick apart these dreams later. They will be of use to my studies.”
A wall of rain hits the windows of the carriage. Looking out, the ocean rages, and in the distance, lightning touches down on a darkening sea.
Meredith’s hands stop shaking.
And her plan is decided before she takes her next breath.
A storm rages beyond the walls of the mansion, lightning flashes in squares of light on walls opposite windows– Meredith hurries, mind set on her goal. It is midnight, or very nearly so, and in one hand she carries a candelabra, and in the other hand, her box of pearls. Her eyes flash with the storm of seas, the surety in her heart the most she’s ever felt in her life, and she knows what must be done tonight.
She does not pause on the windowed bridge between building and study, surrounded by storm and barraged by rain.
The heavy door flings open.
Doctor Lovegore’s private study is empty and shrouded in shadow except for the glowing iridescence of the mermaid in her chamber, her hands on the glass, expecting her. The curtains at the window are drawn tight, only the barest flash of lightning getting through.
“Nacra,” she whispers, stopping just beyond the door step. She is sure… but her hands still shake. “I know it will be hard but… stay out of the way as much as possible. I will do my best to catch you.”
And with that, Meredith sets down the candelabra, runs, and flings the box of pearls with all her might at the glass cylinder.
A corner hits the surface, leaving a splintered halo in its place.
The lock on the box stays firm.
The halo grows, and the pressure of the water inside aids the destruction, spouts of water leaking out into the study, furthering the cracks.
The lock breaks, pearls scatter everywhere, and water explodes from the chamber, all its contents spilling out onto the carpet and rushing past Meredith’s shoes, tugging at the bottom of her skirts and threatening to topple her if it weren’t for her bracing herself. The candelabra is knocked over and hisses as it is overcome by the water, drenching the room in even more darkness. It is deliriously quiet as Meredith blinks through the darkness to try and adjust and find the mermaid.
The mermaid hides within her shell, revealed to be sitting on the floor only after the inky dark water begins to pool elsewhere, spilling out who knows where. Meredith is quick to pick up the shell in both her hands, surprised at its heftiness and in shock that this… this is happening. She freed Nacra. They’re going to escape together and this is her doing.
“Nacra… it’s okay, I’m here, it’s going to be okay.”
The seam of the shell cracks open slightly, hesitantly, and Meredith watches in a mix of awe and horror and adoration as black, inky tendrils seep out from the edges, curling around her hands. The sensation is nothing like she’d ever imagined, ever changing, not rough, not smooth, not there, not anywhere else– she thinks she might cry. She watches as the tendrils seep up her arms, her throat, curious and loving and more tender than she’d ever imagined. They taste at her tears and wipe the salty streaks from her eyes, a movement so meaningful even from something so… so… different. Strange. Beautiful.
And there it is.
The unheard song.
It fills the air like a choir of angels, terrifying and beautiful, like sea-filled organs spreading on forever into the distance, like waves bowling her over and pinning her to the ocean floor, cacophonous in only the most melodious of ways. She does not know if she screams in fear, delight, or a need to be a part of it, but she knows, she knows, Nacra would not sing for her, speak for her, if she did not think she could survive it.
And her message is clear: Behind you.
But the message is too late comprehended.
Thunder claps at the same instance searing pain shoots through Meredith’s chest, and the shell in her hand shatters into thick, glowing pieces. A bullet, silvery, opalescent, lodges into the wall. The song of the mermaid becomes a shout, a cry of pain, far too much to handle. The mermaid clasps onto her desperately, what is left of the shell falling away as her form falls into that of a humanoid, wavering like smoke and threatening to vanish before her very eyes. The mermaids large eyes stare into hers, and she sees fear, fury, and pain the likes of which she’s never seen before.
Not of fear, but of pain.
The bullet’s path had ripped through her chest, through Nacra, and now a hole sits in her chest where a heart should be.
“I am sorry, Meredith.”
Lovegore’s voice carries over the sound of her suffering, of the storm. She finds herself slumped down on her knees, the mermaid laying against her, tendrils still attached even as they struggle to hold on to each other. Lovegore’s footsteps approach, cautious, and Meredith hears the reloading of a gun’s chamber.
“I could have stopped this, Meredith. If I had known, I could have saved you. I could have locked this room up and I could have sent you to a better house.”
Meredith finds it in her to look up at the Doctor, spectacles two discs of light with the light of the lamp in her off-hand. A revolver points at her, at the mermaid still grasping at her and latching onto her ever more, as if trying to protect her.
“Why…” She heaves through whatever’s left of her lungs. “Why would I want you… to stop this…?”
The Doctor has no answer to this.
She laughs, and laughs, and laughs as if there were air in her lungs and not a hole in her chest, cackling in a hysteria only a dying lover can know. The laugh grows despite the weakness, the dizziness, the pain. She laughs, crying, despairing, and ridiculing of what the good Doctor can never know.
And blood drips from her mouth.
And pearls drip from her lips.
And Nacra’s grasp on her is strong, iron, hot and cold. Meredith finds her strength returning to her, a power she’s never known seeping into her chest, filling the physical hollow where her heart should be, emanating throughout her body, her veins, keeping her alive, standing her up and grabbing the gun before it can shoot again.
The Doctor is afraid, and Meredith has never relished in anything more.
Nacra has never relished in anything more.
“Meredith, if you’re still in there, please. See reason. I cannot let this creature hurt the people of this town, this world, please, I–”
Meredith– Nacra– they strike her down without another word between them.
Lovegore lies on the ground, blood at her temple, glasses shattered.
It is quiet except for the storm outside.
Meredith is not a creature of killing, of hurt. Nacra knows this. So the pair, the creature residing within the empty space of Meredith’s ribs, and the maid no longer, step back and watch the unconscious doctor for a long moment, before turning around, and leaving.
They walk through the empty mansion, down stairs and pristine, dusted corridors, past picture frames and bedrooms, until they stand outside in the storm, at the entrance of the estate, wind whipping Meredith’s hair and skirts, a trail of pearls, blood, and seawater in her wake. They stare out at the sky, at the lightning, at the spinning light of a distant light house, and continue down a path, steep and steady. A foghorn blares continuously in the distance.
She stands on the docks, drenched by the storm and illuminated only by the light of the lamps on fishermen’s boats. Whatever eyes of whatever fishermen might pry, no soul dares step out into the storm to confront her. She stands at the end of the pier, seeing only storm and hearing only comfort and song, tasting only salt water and metal. Meredith listens and sways to Nacra’s song, feeling her joy and knowing her thoughts. The life ahead of her will be one of care and comfort, one befit of a princess, a princess of deep dark things, of crushing waters. A royal bride of the ocean.
A new song sounds, distant and deep.
A mother calling to her daughter.
A queen giving her blessing.
The ocean’s waters are warm on her cold skin, sinking into the stormy waters, small and dark and free.
Nacra takes her home.
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