It was the dream again:
I walked along a narrow stone path at night. The damp increased as I walked, moisture condensing on stone and skin alike. I breathed in the wet air, letting it coat my tongue; I tasted brine and it made something stir deep in my belly. The further I walked, the more clearly I heard the sounds of water lapping, and voices whispering unintelligible phrases, and something that I knew in my bones was the sound of a large, wet shape moving alongside me…
And just as I glimpsed the water’s surface and my own shadowed form, I awoke to find tears drying on my cheeks, and my body filled with a diffuse longing.
Georges would say: of course you would dream of water, you were born by the sea. He would say this, and pat me on the head, and tuck me back in as if I were still a child, though I could barely remember being such.
I have always been this person, this Ada.
And what I knew, what I dared not say to him but I knew in my heart, was that my dreams were not of forgotten memories: they were of things to come.
As my mind cleared I realized I was arriving at my destination.
The façade of the chateau was a grim affair, all grey stone and narrow windows. As my coach made its way up the drive, I fancied I could see what had once been a moat in the lines of the gardens, probably fed by the river that cut through the property. The neat trees, pruned to conical shapes in a pleasant symmetry, seemed at odds with the looming walls and crenellations. The unusual prospect made my blood quicken, and I was already flustered. It had been a daunting task to find a driver willing to undertake the last miles of my journey, for the locals expressed a superstitious dread of the estate; indeed, it took nearly all my monies, and money was no longer in ready supply. It was for that very reason I had come all these miles, crossing the breadth of France itself: a chance to sell one of my late husband’s artifacts, and finally free myself of his creditors.
At the heavy wooden doors I was met not by a footman but a serving girl who shouldered my trunk as if she were a man. I could not help but study her in turn, for her appearance seemed familiar, though I could not say just what about her provoked my nostalgia. Perhaps she reminded me of a visitor of Georges’—there had been so many visitors I was not allowed to meet, for Georges had believed their scholarly conversation would only bore me—or perhaps one of the girls from the orphanage? The latter seemed more likely, as the maid’s large brown eyes seemed to gaze at me with a mixture of suspicion and fear, and it was all I could do to keep from trembling beneath her scrutiny.
Despite my unease I kept a firm grip on the valise containing the artifact, and the woman did not press me for it. Inside a second maid, so similar to the first as to be her sister, led me to a bedroom upstairs and said that my hostess was waiting. As soon as I had refreshed myself I was to go to the dining room, where we would take supper.
Once I was alone I felt a profound sense of foreboding. Even at Georges’ sickbed I had never felt so apprehensive, so certain that some cataclysm was about to happen. I went to my window, thinking to signal the driver, but he was gone. Not even the tracks of the coach remained.
Instead, I steadied my nerves, changed my dress, and washed my face. Thus refreshed, I went forth to meet the Countess d’Armagnac, who had offered me a small fortune for the artifact, on the condition that I bring it to her in person.
When I entered the dining room, I was greeted by a woman elegantly dressed in green brocade, her hair curled and pinned around a pretty and intelligent face. Even in our little corner of France we knew of the Countess’ reputation as a woman of letters, as well as her feuds with salonnières and encyclopedists. Now, before me, I could see that she was everything her reputation declared and more: an assured, accomplished woman, replete with wealth and a remarkable beauty.
Yet as remarkable as her beauty was, her necklace was even more striking. It consisted of a single large pendant, a gold-framed icon showing the painted image of a coiled serpent. The image was one of marvelous detail, from the strange fins on the serpent’s body to each meticulously rendered scale. I wanted nothing more than to reach out and touch it, to see if I could feel each tiny, curling brushstroke.
Only then did I realize I was openly staring at my hostess’ décolletage. I dropped into a curtsey, blushing with shame; my blush deepened when the Countess laughed and bade me rise.
“My dear Madame Mortimer! I see you are taken with my jewelry—understandable, as it is a most unusual piece. My father was an importer of fish from several coastal villages; the necklace was given in gratitude for his business.” She quickly undid the clasp and fastened it around my own neck, then took my hand and pressed it over the icon. “There. Now you may examine it at your leisure: a proper welcome for a new friend.”
“You are too kind,” I gasped. The metal frame was so light as to seem weightless, yet it was cold, so cold it took my breath away. It was all I could do to nod as the Countess inquired about my journey; in my mind I kept thinking of the necklace, how the serpent seemed almost to undulate against my hand…
But I was letting my mind wander again, when I could not afford to do so. “Pardon?” I asked.
“I only said that you are exactly what I imagined, yet you seem taken aback by me. Perhaps Georges did not mention he was corresponding with another woman?” She was looking at me keenly.
“Quite the contrary,” I replied. “He mentioned you many times, only he said your correspondence was scholarly in nature.” I was blushing again, discomforted both by the necklace and the sudden insinuation. I had always trusted Georges, and I had believed he trusted me…
Yet here I was, a world away from our little house, my future in the hands of this strange, sly woman.
“My apologies,” the Countess said. “I do not mean to… cast aspersions on Georges’s character. But he did keep things from you, Madame. That is why I asked you to bring the tablet to me; I would have you completely informed before you give it to me.”
“Before I sell it to you,” I corrected.
She laughed, openly this time; it was a wonderful, free laugh, as boisterous as a man’s. “I give you my word, Madame, that you will have your money.” She gestured to the dining table, where two places were set close together. “All I ask is that you dine with me tonight, and listen to my little story. In the morning I will have both payment and a carriage waiting for your journey home—or wherever you would like to go.”
For a brief moment it was as if the very room darkened at her words: I was no longer in the dining room but in my dream again, straining to hear the lapping water, trembling with anticipation—save now it felt as if the necklace too was part of those imaginings, its icy presence as natural as if I had dreamed it all along.
And then the moment passed, and I agreed to her terms, and in doing so set the course of my fate. It was only then that I realized she had kept her hand over mine, her fingertips resting lightly against my chest, for our entire conversation.
“So you were confined to the orphanage for most of your life,” the Countess prompted, pouring me yet another glass of wine.
I did not want to think on that terrible place, as suffocating as any prison. Instead I focused on the marvelous repast before me, consisting solely of a startling variety of fish. “I was seeking a place as a seamstress when Georges came.”
She angled her head, as if making a study of my features—or perhaps of her own, for she could not be oblivious to how the firelight illuminated her finely-boned face. “A young age to give yourself over to a trade. Could you not have gone to a convent?”
I sipped my wine as I tried to think on an answer. Such a place had been generously offered to me, at a convent in Paris where I would have been assured of improving my circumstances. Yet the moment it had been proposed the very notion repulsed me; I had felt certain I would have been merely changing prisons, and the convent would have been much, much worse.
“I preferred to take a trade,” I finally answered, taking another forkful of the octopus on my plate, the plump tentacle dripping with salty broth. It was delicious. Georges never let us have fish, it made him ill…
“Or perhaps you simply feared their natural repulsion, and what it might provoke,” she promptly replied.
I froze in my seat, the fork halfway to my mouth, my lips parted in utter shock.
“Did you ever wonder, Madame, how it was that Georges came to you? That is, what brought him to an orphanage so far from his home?”
“He was visiting an acquaintance.” I had to force the words out. The story, which had for so long satisfied me, seemed foolish in the face of the Countess’ scrutiny. “His friend invited him to a concert at the orphanage, where he saw me sing, and he was… taken with me.”
“A pretty tale, and there may be some truth in it. But he knew you were there, Madame. He knew all along, for he knew your parents, as did my father.”
She leaned back then, studying the effect of her words. I knew I should demand proof, yet I felt again that sense of familiarity, as if a long-forgotten memory was slowly rising out of the depths…
Without thinking I reached up and touched the necklace, resting just above my breasts.
“We always knew where you were, Ada.” The sound of my name was as shocking as cold water. “Only Georges wedded you before anyone else could intervene, and squirreled you away to that motheaten hovel of his. Again,” she held up a hand at my rising ire, “I cast no aspersions; I believe Georges was a good husband to you. He may have even loved you as he claimed. Yet he also sought to protect you, and there is no surer way to harm another than to unnecessarily protect them.”
“Protect me from what?” I whispered.
Instead of replying she turned and rang a little bell. The first maid entered, bearing my valise and a large, worn book of some antiquity. With an air of ceremony she placed both bag and book on the far end of the table; she undid first one clasp, then the other; bowing her head, she reached inside and slowly lifted out the tablet, placing it on the white cloth before us.
I found myself sighing deeply. Of all the pieces in Georges’ collection, the tablet was the most alluring. At first glance it looked like a hewn piece of rock, perhaps the work of an apprentice stonemason, but closer inspection revealed a side etched with intricate symbols. It exerted a curious pull upon my mind, as it had whenever Georges took it out of its cabinet. Only now I recognized its echo in the Countess’ necklace: there were parts of the designs that resembled that knotted, serpentine form, coiling among the other symbols as if about to strike.
“It is one of the oldest languages in the world,” the Countess said. “A language known only from fragments and secondhand tales, found in the villages my father dealt with… and where your parents lived. Our wealth was built upon the remarkable consistency of the fishermen’s hauls in that region, which they in turn said was due to their worship of a sea deity they called Ada.” She smiled at my sharp intake. “Though do not take the name as flattery. Nearly every family along that stretch of coastline has a daughter named Ada, as homage to the goddess who keeps them fed.”
Seeing my unease, she filled my wine glass again, and I quickly drank from it.
“Did you love your husband, Ada?”
Before I properly heard the question I blurted out, “He was a good man.” And at once flushed deeply, knowing how poor it sounded. Though I had never given thought to it before; I knew not a single woman who had married for love or felt more than an affectionate respect for her husband. Georges had been kind, and had provided well and it had been more than enough.
My answer, however, seemed to please the Countess. “There is nothing wrong in making a practical choice. But your marriage changed him. My father had hired him because, for the first time that anyone could remember, the fishing was going poorly. Catches were declining, the seas were becoming as fitful as anywhere. With Georges’ background in languages and religions, my father hoped to understand what had changed. The two of them worked closely together, learning the meaning of the rituals the villagers performed. That such primitive rites could happen in France… but it does not matter. Once he married you, Georges abandoned our project and left us adrift with our declining fortune. I duplicated his library to the best of my ability and reenacted his studies; I even imported peasants from the villages to serve in my household and teach me their beliefs. For I knew that our only hope was to reverse what had changed and, ultimately, control the rituals for our own ends.”
I felt lightheaded, perhaps from the drink; her words were tumbling together in my mind, I could not make sense of them. “But what would you gain from such control?” I asked stupidly.
“Power, Ada.” She leaned forward, her fingertips brushing the necklace again—and my bare skin as well. “What if their legends are true? Fishing has always been a game of chance, of man against tide and weather and season. The villagers claim that their Ada can diffuse a thunderstorm and calm the roughest seas, as long as she is properly appealed to. Imagine if there were even a grain of truth in it. Imagine if I could expand our business over the whole of the French coastline and flood the markets with my fish. Imagine if I could not only quell a thunderstorm, but raise one against a foreign navy. I would be the most powerful woman in France, Ada, more powerful than the king himself. Only I have never before had all the pieces needed to enact the rituals. Not until tonight.”
I was trembling beneath her touch, yet I could not bring myself to move away. “You have convinced me,” I said. “I will sell you the tablet. We have a deal.”
She slid her chair close, until I could feel her breath on my ear. “Does the tablet draw you, Ada? Does it call to you?”
I nodded, not trusting myself to speak.
“Would it surprise you to know that it was found seemingly at the time of your conception? That it was discovered during the same fishing trip where your mother had fallen into the sea and nearly drowned, only to find herself with child some weeks later?”
The room was growing warm, the air too thick to breathe. Her fingertips were hot against my flesh. I could only look at the tablet, its surface wobbling in the candlelight.
“Your father never believed he was your father; he thought something had visited itself upon your mother. And yet here you are, as perfect a woman as any man could ask for. You must have been a most difficult conundrum for Georges—believing what he did about your parentage, craving your innate knowledge in order to sell it to my father, and yet finding himself attracted to you.”
At last I came to my senses enough to stand, knocking my chair aside; I clung to the table, shuddering violently. “Foul,” I managed to stammer, “foul, foul!” Though whether I meant the Countess, or her words, or the visions that danced before my eyes I could not say.
Somewhere water lapped against a shore, while voices called out words I did not understand…
“Ada, listen to me.” She placed herself before me, her dark gaze holding mine. “All your life, have you not felt something? Something calling to you as if from a great distance, perhaps from the very sea itself?” Her voice, low and driving, drowned out all other sounds. “I thought at first you were merely a fetching peasant, but you are something else. Something perhaps formed by those churning seas, then hidden away in the safety of an empty womb…”
The floor swayed and rocked beneath my feet. My face was wet; I touched my cheeks and realized I was weeping, though I had not felt the tears come. A small part of my mind knew this was madness, I should flee this place, the money be damned.
Before me the Countess smiled warmly. She leaned forward and gently kissed first one cheek, then the other, and then finally placed her soft rouged lips against mine.
“Ada,” she breathed. “Let me give you yourself.”
I opened my mouth—to speak, to kiss her?—and instead I fainted.
I was outside of myself, bodiless, in a dark place where warm water swaddled me and voices lulled me and a scaly body coiled about me, whispering words of power in my ear, words of a strange language that nonetheless filled me with an ache of recognition…
I was swaddled in my mother’s arms, listening to her whispers, she frightens me, there’s something about her eyes, what if she’s been possessed by the devil or worse…
I was dreaming in bed, dreaming of descending into the water, and in a stupor I realized Georges was speaking to someone in my room, I have not let her touch fish or salt since I brought her here, I will never let them claim her…
There is no surer way to harm another than to unnecessarily protect them.
Slowly I felt myself returning, felt smooth stone beneath me, felt damp air upon my face. Was I dreaming still? My mind was thick with images of the Countess, our repast, her terrible speech; yet my body refused to fully awaken. Perhaps I had never come here at all; perhaps it was all the same dream—the journey and my arrival, our supper and now these blurry impressions.
And then I heard scratching beside my head, and it was as if cold water had been poured over me. I forced my eyes open and with much blinking managed to focus on the piece of chalk grinding onto the flagstones, trailing a broad white curve around my body. I heard too the Countess chanting above me, the words incomprehensible but the sounds making me shudder.
She paused when she saw I was awake; I tried to speak but could not make the words come. She kissed my forehead, the cool of her necklace brushing my face, for she was once more wearing the pendant; then she ran a sticky thumb down the bridge of my nose, over my chin, and dabbed onto my chest an asymmetrical pattern of red thumbprints—a pattern, I swiftly realized, made out of blood.
L.S. Johnson has been previously published in such venues as Strange Horizons, Long Hidden, and Interzone. She currently has stories in Lackington’s and Strange Tales V.