It was after dawn by the time we reached the edge of old Lake Kara. Mr. MacGregor was snoring in the back seat, safety belt holding him upright, his head tilted back, his mouth hanging open. Sallali rubbed at his eyes, looking even more grey and exhausted in the brightening sunlight.
I flipped down the visor to shield my eyes and rolled the pearl of water across my tongue. It hummed gently, the vibrations increasing the closer we got to the dried lake.
“This is definitely the place. The child is here.”
Sallali glanced over at me. “You know that how?”
“A gift from the potamide.” I opened my mouth, sticking out my tongue so that he could see the pearl.
He turned the wheel, following an old gravel and dirt track in a shallow arc. The ground sloped down to our left, then flattened out, before rising again about a quarter of a mile away. The former bottom of the lake was relatively level and covered in shrubs and young trees; I could see motorcycle tracks weaving back and forth.
I heard an engine rumble and looked back through the rear window. Over Mr. MacGregor’s head, I could see Agent Natsinet and her colleagues following closely, gravel and dust from our vehicle staining the front of their car.
“There it is,” Sallali said.
I turned back around in the seat and spotted the cabin through the windshield.
It was tiny; probably a single room, one window looking out over the lake bed. A short porch offered just enough space for a couple of rocking chairs. An old car sat to one side. The trees behind the cabin were older, thickening into a true forest.
The road straightened out and Sallali pressed down on the accelerator. The car behind us roared, swinging around to pass us and race towards the cabin.
“Show off,” Sallali muttered.
We weren’t sneaking in this time. There was no point. With the dust cloud that had been kicked up by both cars, the Vassilakis elders, if they were inside, had known we were coming for the last mile.
I could hear the grunch of the tires and the squeal of the brakes as Natsinet slid to a halt in front of the cabin. She and the blondes leapt out, weapons drawn, using their car as a shield.
Behind me, Mr. MacGregor snorted in his sleep.
A flicker of movement. A figure running behind the cabin, heading into the trees.
“Sallali!” I pointed, my hand banging against the window, the pearl of water in my mouth vibrating.
Grimacing, he swung the wheel, pulling off the road to the right of the cabin. The car bounced across the ground, the safety belt digging into my chest and stomach. Food wrappers and empty coffee cups tumbled around my feet.
Mr. MacGregor snorted awake. “Are we there already?”
The car hit a hole. I winced as the undercarriage whacked against the ground. Sallali slammed down hard on the accelerator and the engine roared. The car lurched forward, over the rut, over more dips and holes and crevices, following the figure towards the woods. The ground rose higher. The engine strained, the tires kicking up dirt and clumps of grass and roots.
A woman. The figure was an older woman, her hair up in a graying bun. She cast a terrified glance at us over her shoulder, then dove into the trees.
Sallali skidded to a halt, barely pulling the brake before he was out and running after her.
“Stay here!” I yelled to Mr. MacGregor.
I heard his “Not a problem!” as I kicked open my door and took off after Sallali. My skirts tangled and flapped around my knees. The bead of water was practically buzzing in my mouth.
I lost sight of Sallali, but I could still hear him. Branches tore at my dress and hair. My dance shoes tangled in roots and sank into soft patches of soil. I kept going, shoving through the trees and scrub.
Surely there had to be at least one numinous tree around here. They would not have been able to flee as the limnades had when the lake disappeared.
“Numinous Ones! The potamide of the Ohi:yo has need of your aid!” I wasn’t sure how loudly I was yelling. My breath was coming fast and hard, and my chest hurt. I stumbled to a halt, listening, straining, caught the sound of Sallali and someone else running, and took off again. “Numinous Ones! Spirits of the trees! I call on you! Ohi:yo has need of you!”
There was a shriek of surprise. I heard wood creaking, bark rubbing.
I shoved through a mass of shrubs and came into a tiny clearing.
The woman had stopped, her way barred by a screen of branches. The tiny spring buds shivered, the branches continuing to interweave. The woman tried dodging first left, then right, but the trees were leaning in close, tying themselves together.
She spun round to face us, her eyes wide and fearful. Her chest rose and fell rapidly. She clutched a small, blanket-wrapped form. The cloth was wet. The shape inside it seemed to be shifting, her arms expanding and contracting to keep it close.
“Leave us alone!” The woman’s voice was harsh, equal parts pleading and snarling. “He’s all we have left. He’s ours! He should be with us!”
From the corner of my eye, I saw Sallali slide closer. He kept his hands out and raised, away from his weapon; a nonthreatening gesture. “Mrs. Vassilakis, you have my condolences on the loss of your daughter. I have no doubt that she has been welcomed into the arms of her ancestors, but I also know that is only a small comfort in your time of grief. My parents and I felt the same when my sister was lost to the war.”
She blinked at him.
“But your grandchild cannot remain with you.”
She pulled her arms tighter, and the shape inside the blanket gurgled a wail. It was an awful, pained sound. Like water being sucked down a drain.
I flinched, and Mrs. Vassilakis jerked. Her head snapped down to the child, then back up to us again. She was weeping now, tears streaking down her cheeks.
“All we have left,” she whispered.
Sallali slid forward again. Then again. He was almost within arm’s reach now. He kept his voice soft and low, comforting. “I know. My sister Kamama left behind three children. They look so much like her that it hurts. But I would never take them away from their father, because I know how much he loves them, and how much he misses his wife, and that as much as being around them hurts because she’s not there, that not being with them, seeing her in them everyday, watching them grow up and sharing memories of her — that would hurt more.”
One step away. He stopped. I held very still.
“You love your grandchild, Mrs. Vassilakis,” he said.
The shape gurgled and twisted again. The blanket was sopping wet now.
“But you can’t care for them the way they need. They’ll perish. They need to go back to the river.”
Mrs. Vassilakis wailed, tumbling to her knees.
I crept forward. Reaching out cautiously, I lifted the blanket from her arms. She released it slowly, hiccuping and crying.
My breath caught when I finally looked upon the infant demigod. It was … drying up. The water was solidifying, growing thick and heavy, shrinking in on itself. It looked only vaguely human, with legs like twin serpent’s tails and facial features closer to that of a bull.
“No,” I whispered.
The bead of water in my cheek hopped and spun.
I bent my head, pressing my mouth to the infant’s lips. I pushed the bead forward with my tongue. There was a strange slurping sensation and the bead was pulled away. I lifted my head, watching in amazement as the bead broke apart inside the infant’s head. Clear fluid spread, swirling in ribbons, then expanding out to fill its entire form. The infant grew slightly, refilling the blanket as the solidification reversed — a bit.
I looked up at Sallali to find that he had placed handcuffs on Mrs. Vassilakis and helped her to her feet.
He nodded once. “Car. Go. I’ll meet you.”
I turned and ran, holding the infant against my chest. The blanket was wet and warm. The trees seemed to part before me, roots digging down into the ground to even the dirt, shrubs pulling in their prickly branches.
“Thank you, Numinous Ones!” I shouted into the air.
A voice came from the trees above and around me. “You will tell Ohi:yo of our service. Tell the river that we miss our lake, and our beloved limnades.”
“I will,” I panted, and emerged on the slope of hill behind the cabin. I almost ran into Sallali’s car, and Agent Natsinet. She was barreling up the incline, her coat flapping, her fedora somehow still attached to her head.
I jerked my elbow behind me, in the general direction of Sallali and Mrs. Vassilakis. She nodded and kept running without a word.
Down below, I could see the two blondes. They were hustling a man in handcuffs between them, towards their vehicle. His was nearly bald, his shoulders and back stooped, his eyes angry. Mr. Vassilakis, no doubt.
The infant twisted in my arms. The serpent tails reformed into human legs, then their whole body morphed, becoming a long, shimmering snake. They hissed up at me, blinking.
Sallali burst from the forest behind me.
“In,” he commanded.
I climbed into the car, sparing Mr. MacGregor only half a glance. My door was barely shut when Sallali released the brake and backed down the hill. The vehicle bounced, the undercarriage hitting the dirt again and again. The axle protested loudly.
Mr. MacGregor coughed. “Uh, should I get out?”
“No time.” Sallali yanked the wheel around and slammed down on the pedal. “You navigate.”
The car raced forward. The blondes watched as we pulled away. In the side mirror, I saw Agent Natsinet emerge from the trees with Mrs. Vassilakis. She waved her fedora at us, and then was lost to dust and distance.
Three hours. It had taken us three hours to travel from the Vassilakis homestead to their little cabin on the shores of what used to be Lake Kara. It was another three hours and then some from the cabin back to the river. Down twisty back road after twisty back road, over creeks wet and dry, up and down hills. Dryads watched us the whole way.
I held the infant in my arms the entire time, watching them slowly die. The clear fluid darkened and contracted. The demigod began to curl in and solidify again, the water leeching from their body to dampen the blanket.
I sang lullabies. I prayed. My arms cramped. The sopping blanket stained my dress. I sang some more, and prayed some more. The child stopped crying. I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally — finally — caught the glimmer of the river in the morning sunlight.
Craning my neck, I looked back at Mr. MacGregor. “How close can we get to the river? The road, I mean. Is there an overlook? A parking lot?”
He blinked. “Uh, well, there’s the railroad bridge.”
“Which way?” Sallali barked.
“It’ll be your next right —”
Tires skidded and squealed, Sallali pulling hard on the wheel. The car slalomed and came out on another road. The main road? The one that led to MacGregor’s store? On the left, through the trees, the reflection of light on water was brighter.
Mr. MacGregor’s arm pointed over the back of the seat. “Half a mile up on your right. The bridge comes down from the river, but it crosses over the trees and the road, so you gotta wrap around to get on the tracks.”
“I see it.”
The bridge arced ahead of us. Only a single track, cross beams gleaming. It came curving over the trees, over the road, angling down, touching the ground somewhere to the right of us.
We passed beneath the bridge, its bulk momentarily blocking the sun.
What time was it? Ten? Later?
Sallali slowed the car, braked, slowed again.
“There.” I pointed, angling my hand, trying not to move my arms from under the child.
A narrow frontage road, barely more than a strip of gravel.
Sallali cranked the wheel, the vehicle bouncing as we left the asphalt road for the gravel. The bridge rolled down next to us, eventually flattening and turning into a track set slightly higher than the ground to either side. Another crank of the wheel and a few pumps of the accelerator, and Sallali had us spun around, driving back up the track and onto the bridge. The spans thudded beneath us, the tires juddering badly. I bounced in the seat, flinching as my careful hold on the child slipped.
I prayed to Hephaestus that the axle would hold.
Up and up and up. We left the road behind, the trees spreading out below us. Up into the air, and now we were over the river.
“Good enough,” I said.
Sallali nodded and eased the car to a bumping, thumping halt.
I kicked the door open. The bridge was narrow. The door clanged against the low metal wall, but I had enough room to climb out. I dragged my heavy, wet skirts out of the way, and then Sallali was there, one hand wrapping around my arm, the other around my waist, helping me stand.
I could smell the river. I could feel it calling, singing in my blood.
The child twisted in my arms, and made a gurgly moan.
I cast a quick glance over my shoulder, across the car, up river. In the distance, I could just see the Psyche — unmoving, held hostage in the middle of the water.
Stepping carefully, wincing, I clambered onto the narrow concrete lip that lined the metal walls of the bridge. I couldn’t release the child. Sallali lifted me so that I was sitting on the low wall with my back to the water, struts angling high up around me.
I smiled at him in gratitude.
And then he leaned up and kissed me.
I stilled in surprise, but only for a moment. His mouth was warm, and comforting, and tasted like cloves.
I wanted to keep kissing him.
But I couldn’t. I was a Priestess of the Waters, and I had a duty to perform.
Reluctantly, I pulled away.
He lifted one hand, touched my cheek — and then I fell backwards off the bridge.
I fell and I fell, plummeting head first. I clutched at the blanket. I kicked my legs, spun one arm, and twisted around. My skirts flew up around my head. And then I was in the river, the water surging around me. Down and down I dove. Cold. Dark. Bubbles whizzing past my head. My skirts were heavy. Down and down. The blanket floated away. The child drifted free of my arms, shifting and curling. Now a serpent, now a little boy, now a fish-tailed bull, now a little girl.
And then I stopped falling.
The water thickened around me, just enough to halt my descent. It wrapped around the child, momentarily taking form: a woman with a long serpent tail, her hair gleaming green, great horns corkscrewing from her head and down her back. She kissed the child, holding them close, and the child laughed and smiled.
And then, with a single nod, they were both gone, one with the river again.
I swam back to shore, coming out under the shadow of the railroad bridge. I sat there for a very long time, shivering, my wet clothes sticking to my body.
Upriver, a horn blew, and I thought I heard the cough and sputter of a broken engine.
I was still sitting there when Sallali came jogging through the trees. He skidded to a halt when he saw me, just staring for a long moment.
And then he smiled.
I smiled, too.
He pulled off his jacket, wrapped it around me, and carefully lifted me to my feet. Another kiss, this one just as warm and comforting, before he led my back through the trees, dryads watching us the entire way.
Despite the damage the potamide had done to the old steamer, the Psyche’s crew managed to nurse it back to port in Gallipolis. Healers were waiting to care for the injured, transporting those with the worst injuries to the hofs and the Asclepion in town. There were journalists, too, cameras popping, notepads and pens at the ready. Agent Natsinet was there, too, though there was no sign of the blondes or Mr. and Mrs. Vassilakis.
And Gran, too, running across the dock to envelope me in a crushing hug. I squeezed her tight, not caring that I was wet and cold and smelled like fish and mud. She didn’t seem to care, either.
I wasn’t sure how long we held one another. I only pulled back when a camera flash popped in my face.
The reporter grinned at me, while the woman beside him stuck another bulb in her camera. “Tell us what happened, Priestess NicCath. Is it true that you single-handedly saved all of the passengers and crew of the Psyche?”
“Uh,” I stammered.
Agent Natsinet smoothly glided into place, positioning herself between Gran and I, and the reporter. I saw more journalists turning our direction, interest gleaming in their eyes.
“No comment,” the Agent said, her voice flat and calm. “Now move along.”
The reporter grimaced, only reluctantly stepping away to corner another group of passengers.
“Come on. Let’s get you home.” Gran ran her hands up and down my arms.
The heat in her palms was enough to steam away some of the water from my clothes and hair, and I could smell the faint scent of Brigid’s blessing.
Gran paused long enough to address Agent Natsinet. “We’ll be available for any questions you may have — tomorrow.”
Natsinet dipped in a half-bow, touching the brim of her hat. “Yes, ma’am.”
Gran led me back towards Sallali’s car. Only when she stumbled did I notice that she was limping.
“Are you okay?”
She waved a dismissive hand, her once elegant pile of red hair falling down around her ears. “A minor injury. A few days on the couch reading Táin Bó Cúailnge or Argonautica and drinking tea, and I’ll be fine. Although I think he’ll need more than a few days.”
She dipped her head and I followed her gaze.
Sallali had fallen asleep, leaning upright against his car. His eyes were closed, his head down, his arms crossed. How he was still standing I had no idea. Behind him, I could see that the back seat was empty. Poor Mr. MacGregor was a short distance away, a journalist eagerly recording whatever he was saying.
Not wanting to startle Sallali, I gently touched his arm. His head still jerked up in response. He blinked at me, his gaze unfocused. He started to slide sideways. Gran and I both grabbed for him, catching his sleeves. He blinked some more.
“Yep. In you go,” Gran ordered. She reached for the handle of the back door and, together, we managed to maneuver Sallali around and into the vehicle. He sprawled across the back seat, hat tipped down over his eyes. “You, too.” Gran waved her hand, motioning for me to follow.
I frowned, searching the dock for the source of the shout. A moment later, Finn emerged from the crowd. He eased through huddles of passengers and healers and a horde of journalists, running up to me. His once neat uniform was wrinkled and sweaty and, in a few places, splashed with blood.
“You’re all right! Thank Gods! After you jumped off the ship ….”
I tried to smile. I remembered how nice it had felt to dance with Finn and, for a while, forget the war and be happy.
Behind me, Sallali snored. Already exhausted, and yet he had come when I called.
“I’m fine, Finn. Really. It was very nice — I’m glad that you’re okay, too. I — I had a wonderful time last night. Right up until the potamide crushed the ship and took everyone hostage ….”
Finn had been reaching for me. Now he dropped his hands, letting them fall slowly to his sides. “ … Oh. I see ….” His smile was forced. “I had a good time, too. A really good time. I was really hoping that we could go dancing again — preferably on dry land.”
I laughed, a hiccup of sound. “I’m not … maybe … maybe ….”
Finn nodded and he forced another smile.
For a long, awkward moment, we just looked at one another. I fiddled uncomfortably with my sleeves.
Then he sighed, stuffing his hands into his pockets. “Try not to jump off any more boats, Peigi, okay?”
I nodded. “Okay.”
Turning, I climbed into the car, gently lifting Sallali’s leg out of the way. He flopped sideways, his head ending up on my shoulder. A moment later, when Gran dropped into the driver’s seat and started up the engine, I had to grab him to keep him from sliding to the floor. He snorted, mumbled something that might have been my name, and cuddled closer.
Gran carefully maneuvered the car through the crowds, lightbulbs flashing. Mr. MacGregor grinned and gave us a big thumbs up. Agent Natsinet lifted her fedora in salute, and then we were away, heading home, the river at peace behind us.
Epilogue: Three Weeks Later
I smiled when I heard the knock at my front door.
A movie and drinks with Sallali. Next weekend, hopefully, a picnic on the shores of the reborn Lake Kara with Gran and some of his fellow detectives and their families. The potamide had shown their gratitude to the dryads by extending a subterranean stream to refill a portion of the old lake bed. There were already hints that the limnades who had fled to Lake Pemuteneyig were making their way home.
Neither Sallali nor I was quite sure what we had started. And we were both okay with taking the time to figure things out.
I grabbed my hat and purse, and pulled open the door, still smiling. Then frowned when Sallali gestured over his shoulder.
“Look who I found loitering outside.”
Agent Natsinet rolled her eyes. “I was not loitering. I was walking with purpose. May I speak with both of you for a moment?”
“Yes, of course.” I stepped to one side and waved my arm, ushering them into the foyer. “Please, be welcome, Agent Natsinet, with all the rights and responsibilities of a guest.”
She followed after Sallali, removing her fedora. Her hair was pulled back into an efficient bun, and her suit was neatly pressed and creased. Behind her, I caught a quick glimpse of the blondes, one sitting in the car, one waiting on the sidewalk beside it.
“I just wanted to fill you in a few things. In accordance with Continental Treaties, Mr. and Mrs. Vassilakis have been handed over to Federal authorities for prosecution: kidnapping and custodial interference with a divine parent. Minimum fifteen years in a Federal prison.”
I felt my eyebrows jump, but Sallali asked the question before I could speak.
“There hasn’t been any divine retribution?”
The agent shrugged. “Of a sort. They can’t get any fires to light. Candle, match, nothing. Guess Hestia’s not too happy with them.”
I grimaced. “Since they are solely devoted to the Hellenic pantheon, perhaps they can plead their case to Demeter. Or Artemis. Maybe they’ll intercede on behalf of the Vassilakises. … But it’s not likely.” Sallali wrapped his arm around my waist, and I welcomed the comfort of his touch.
“No.” Natsinet shook her head. “I also wanted to say thank you again, for your help. We could not have recovered the child in time without your insight and assistance. Now that the classified matter that initially brought Agents Bronson and Bransen and myself to Gallipolis has been settled —”
Those were their names? The blondes were Bronson and Bransen?
“ — we’ll be returning to the capital.” She half-bowed, hat still in her hands. “May the Gods watch over and bless you both.”
Sallali and I returned the half-bow, and her blessing.
Settling her fedora back on her head, Natsinet opened the door and walked back down the sidewalk. We followed her out onto the front step. The blonde who was waiting on the sidewalk — Bronson? Bransen? — opened the back passenger door and, a few moments later, the car was lost to sight down the street.
Sallali’s arm tightened around my waist. “Still want to go out for drinks and a movie?”
I hesitated, then shook my head. I swung around, lifting my arms around his neck.
“Let’s go dancing.”
[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]