“Only your innocence saves you from insolence,” Louis said.
“Innocence is no excuse for such presumption,” said the Pope.
“I mean no insult, Your Majesty, Your Holiness. Nor does the sea woman —”
“Do you not?”
“I speak for her. Her name is —” She sang the sea woman’s name. His Majesty listened, his eyes half closed. Marie-Josèphe wished for him to open his mind, to see what she could hear. “She doesn’t know our customs.”
“Do you, Mlle de la Croix?” the King said.
“Our custom,” Innocent said, “is to eat the flesh of sea monsters. God put sea monsters — and all beasts — on Earth for the use of man, as He put women on Earth to submit to men. I look forward to savoring sea monster flesh.”
“I shall hear what the monster — what Mlle de la Croix has to say.”
Faint with relief, Marie-Josèphe fell to her knees before the King. She grasped his hand and kissed it.
“Thank you, Your Majesty.”
He extricated his hand from her grasp; he brushed his fingertips across her hair. He left the cage and settled in his armchair, Pope Innocent at his right hand.
Could I make the sea woman sound more diplomatic? Marie-Josèphe wondered. No: I’d tangle myself in lies. Besides, she’d correct me herself.
The sea woman waited. Floating at the platform in the scummy water, she kicked the surface to tan foam with her double tail. She slithered up the stairs and lay exposed and vulnerable on the rim of the fountain. She snarled.
Marie-Josèphe bent to kiss her gnarled forehead. The sea woman grabbed her left hand and buried her face in her palm, sniffing her skin, touching it with her tongue, in a crude and flagrant parody of the kiss Marie-Josèphe offered the King. Like Louis, Marie-Josèphe twisted her hand away. She settled her drawing box.
The sea woman cried out a surge of anger like a tidal wave
“No, sea woman, please,” Marie-Josèphe whispered, “this might be your last chance, it’s a story they want, tell a tale of sea creatures, of great storms, of Atlantis —”
The sea woman murmured, promising a story, an extraordinary, glorious story, if only Marie-Josèphe would interpret.
Marie-Josèphe faced His Majesty and sought to turn the sea woman’s images into words.
“Why did you murder my friend and slash him to pieces?”
Yves’ face paled to gray beneath his tan.
“If you want to see inside him, you should touch him with your voice.”
The sketch formed as if the sea woman had burned it into the paper. The sea man, alive, joyful, dove through the waves, his bones and organs a clean clear shadow within him.
“Why did you kill my best sweet friend, who shared the touch of...” Paralyzed with embarrassment, Marie-Josèphe struggled for a description she could say in front of the King. “Who shared the touch of our secret places?”
Marie-Josèphe saw before her the broken body of the sea man, drifting into dark depths. The sea woman swam beside him, weeping, her tears mingling with the water.
“You did not respect his life,” Marie-Josèphe said. “You do not respect his death.”
The sea woman swam beside the body of her friend, braiding her hair with his, dark green with light.
“After you killed him, you should have taken him properly into the sea.”
She sank deeper into the darkness with her dead friend. Marie-Josèphe’s tears blurred her vision, blurred her sketch. The song’s images remained clear. She feared the sea woman planned to die.
The sea woman’s friend sank into a darkness swirled with light. Luminescent sea creatures shone like stars in the night sky. The sea woman cut the lock of her friend’s hair with a shell blade.
In the fountain, the sea woman fingered the tangled light-green hair knotted to her darker hair.
“He gave me a token, a pretty thing, a shiny stone, to tie into my hair. I would return it to him.”
The sea woman’s song faded; the image of her friend’s body disappeared, falling through darkness and beyond the pinpoint lights and glowing ribbons. The images disappeared entirely. Marie-Josèphe bent her head and wiped her tears on her sleeve. The true world returned to her sight.
Her heart sank, for His Majesty frowned and His Holiness glared and Yves looked ready to faint, while the nobles whispered to each other, appalled. But the audience of commoners sighed and wept with pity. Count Lucien, behind His Majesty, stared at the floor. The curls of his perruke hid his face.
“That is all,” Marie-Josèphe whispered.
“Pagan ritual,” His Holiness said. “Did you learn these things from wild men, Mlle de la Croix?”
His Majesty rose. “Doesn’t the sea monster wish to keep this love token?”
Lorraine laughed at His Majesty’s witticism, enjoying Marie-Josèphe’s anguish. Monsieur chuckled briefly, but with more distress than amusement.
The sea woman sang a melody of heartbreaking beauty, a distillation of love and grief.
“I would send it with him,” Marie-Josèphe sang, following the melody. “Send it into the depths with him, to acknowledge that I, too, will die.”
“Does she not,” His Majesty said carefully, “claim to be immortal?”
“No, Your Majesty.”
“We are all immortal in the love of God,” His Holiness said. “Does your sea monster believe in the Resurrection? In God’s everlasting life?”
“Life itself is everlasting,” Marie-Josèphe sang, in harmony. “People live, people create new life, people die. People never come back.”
His Holiness made a sound of utter disgust. “Your games have passed beyond amusement, Mlle de la Croix — even beyond pagan belief. You tread the edge of heresy!”
“I didn’t invent the story, Your Holiness,” Marie-Josèphe said. “Please, please believe me. The sea woman told it. She doesn’t understand heresy —”
“You should,” Innocent said.
“But she could understand God!” Marie-Josèphe exclaimed. “She could, if Your Holiness taught her. You could give Our Savior to the people of the sea —”
“Be silent!” His Holiness said. “Convert beasts?”
“She thinks Jesus on the Mount should have preached to loaves and fishes instead of to people.”
No one laughed at Lorraine’s observation; Count Lucien gave him a glare of perfect animosity.