Jorge shifted in his hammock, exhaled fitfully. He wrapped a hand round his sleeping head, hunched his shoulders, dozed on. Beside, the speaker, a short sailor in cornrows, moaned. "Jorge, get up. There's something wrong." She seized the hand, yanked on it. Jorge sputtered awake.
He blinked torpidly, sniffed. "Margot," he mumbled, sniffed again. He shuddered, frowned. "I was having the most awful dream."
"Just get up. Something's wrong."
"Aren't you on watch shift?"
"Come one. Everyone's on deck."
"What?" Jorge rolled out of his sling, stood barefoot on the planking. He shivered, pricked by goosebumps. About him, rope hammocks hung between stout hold beams, swinging gently. All were empty.
"What's going on?"
"I don't know, just please come with me. I can't go alone," said Margot, dragging him to the hatch ladder.
"This isn't like you," Jorge stuttered, rubbing his arms.
They clambered into a night awash with mist. Chill rivulets clung from the decking to Jorge's feet, ran from the masts, yardarms, and railings. Ragged lines of cloud hung white under the swollen moon, trailed like slow ribbons from the veiled peaks of mountain islands shrouded in the distance.
"Cold," said Jorge, shaking his feet.
"There they are," said Margot.
She headed to the starboard gunwale, where two dozen or so sailors stood fast, silent, shivering, at the rail. They stared down and out at the distance, rapt. Some chattered, cold, even sobbed, but none spoke. Jorge and Margot wandered over. "Oh…"
Out on the water, some hundred meters out, stood wide outcroppings of dark, flat-topped basalt. Geometric collections of pillars, only feet above the water, clothed in curling vapor and dark weeds swaying in the mist. Atop them lounged beautiful, pale creatures.
Lithe, bare forms. Long and athletic, rested with heads cushioned by folded arms or affectionately on neighboring chests and laps. Seaspray glistened on their grey-alabaster flesh and voluminous lengths of black tresses. Some dozen creatures, in total, peacefully asleep amidst the rocks and weeds.
"Blimey," whispered Jorge. A half-hearted smile of relief passed over his features.
Margot looked sick, nodded. "Just like the stories."
"Story's don't say anything about feeling like doom's hanging over your head, though."
"How can something so beautiful be so dreadful?"
Someone nudged Jorge, pushed him a spyglass. "Take a closer look, you two," they whispered, voice cold. "And maybe you'll understand."
Jorge squinted through the lens, directed it to the creatures. He turned the focus, teeth chattering.
"My…" He scrunched his nose, exclaimed softly at inhuman details couched in beauty. Lovely faces, set with eyes so black and so large as to show bulbous through translucent lids. Shapely legs, strong, half again longer than a human's, and ended by oarlike flukes. Sculpted lips, parted in sleep to show needlish carnivore's-teeth.
Jorge pulled the glass from his eye, shoved it to Margot. She looked, squinted, blanched, handed it away fast. "Be glad to get past them."
"Too bad, then," whispered a bald sailor from along the rail. He took his glass back, pointing ahead of the prow. Jorge leaned to see. Amidst the looming islands, countless more basalt stands stood from the sea. Indistinct, swathed in fog and weeds. All littered with lovely, predatory forms.
"They overwinter, here," said the bald man, grimly. "We'll be lucky to get past the lot, by morn. Slow going, for the rocks."
Jorge shivered. "Think I'll head back to my sack, then." He turned, nodded to Margot, who quivered. "Don't envy your watch."
"Wait." The bald man hissed, caught his arm.
"You ever encounter them before?"
"No," said Jorge.
"Then take these." He handed him two globs of beeswax.
"Oh." He went pale.
"Lest they start to sing."
"The lobby is practically a brawl," said a silver mask, plopping into velvet upholstery. Silk-gloved fingertips pinched at the nose bridge, pulled the visage away. Tired eyes and a pointed nose showed, beneath. "People are throwing things. And there's no more wine. I asked," said Clove, rubbing her temples.
"Shame," said her companion, a dark woman with cropped hair. She, too, had an aristocrat's mask on thin cord about her collared neck.
The two looked out from a high box, stage left, on an sumptuous auditorium half-filled with folk in evening wear. Some, seated and quiet with concerned thought. Most, up and outraged. Aisles thronged with pushy clammorers in dark suits, dress coats, and feathered hair embellishments. Ringed hands and wine glasses raised in gestural pique. The mezzanines' rails overflowed with indignant gentlefolk and balancing noblemice, who all alike frowned and pointed to the shut curtains hind the stage's gold and marble proscenium arch. Below, nervous eyes and brass instruments flashed in the half-hidden orchestra pit. Across, fellow masked box-goers leaned to mutter and conspire dourly.
"Suppose that's why the interval has dragged on, so."
"It's terrible," said Clove. She adjusted her tulle cravat. "The composer, that fellow from Adaleutia, has disappeared. Someone's threatened to duel the producer," she rolled her eyes. "And that assinine princeling from Lisa is demanding everyone in the stalls be escorted out."
"They were applauding rather inappropriately."
"They were applauding at novelty, Karene."
"'Novelty,'" mocked Karene. "That soloist was essentially nude." *
"Poor thing," said Clove. "I'll not envy the attention she draws, after this."
"Who was she, anyway?" said Karene, lip wrinkling. "Some underfed waif? It's a shame what the Company has stooped to."
"Haven't you heard?" Clove raised her eyebrows. "The cast is supplemented by a troupe from Adaleutia. Brought on specially by the composer's request. Evidently, he's very proud of his heritage."
Karene toyed with a gold cufflink. "Was that the other language in the sailor's duet? The one from off stage. Adaleutian?"
"No. Come to think, I've never heard it before."
"Very inappropriate, then, introducing nonsense tongues," sneered Karene. "A blatant break from civility."
"It gave me chills, really," said Clove. She picked up a pair of opera glasses, polished the lenses with her silk fingertips. "And not nice ones."
About the auditorium, most folk had resumed their seats, fewer and more sedate than before. A nervous, muttering energy followed them; muted, but yet undiminished. Up and behind the mezzanines, a heavy chime rang twice.
"Nearly time," said Clove.
"At last. Last bell was ten minutes ago." Karene frowned, watched tailcoated ushers attempt to quiet the house.
"Look how few remain," Clove mused.
"Can't blame them. The performance is aesthetic scandal." Karene turned to her friend. "Do you think we should leave, too?"
"No. If the night's to be scandal, it's ever more worth watching. We'd best see it through."
Karene nodded, pursed her lips. The chime rang again, and the front lights dimmed with a subtle hiss. "Finally," she said. There was a final scuffle to resume seats. Near the back of the house, a belligerent old man was dragged out by staff. Hundreds of opera lenses flashed, resumed their places in silk and ring-couched hands. The house lights sunk to black. Silence gradually swelled.
Invisibly, the stage opened in a surrurant swish of velvet and runner rings. From the orchestra, a thin and amelodic quaver of bassoon began to swell. And as it swelled, there bloomed in the stage's heart a spotlight. First a pinpoint, then a cold flood, revealing as if by starlight a lone performer on a curious set. The audience immediately began to mumble.
It was lone, grey-pale woman. She reclined, head bowed, clothed in naught but liquid spills of black tresses on an angled bed of rock. Curious pin-lights of stars glittered above, somehow reflected in the sea of blue and white-tipped silk which appeared to lap at her half-submerged calves.
Surprise caught in Clove's throat. She raised the stem of her theater glasses, squinted agape. "Oh, beauty," she muttered.
"Oh, scandal," said Karene, frowning, but likewise fascinated.
"Look at her–" On stage, the silk-water woman raised her head. The bassoon swelled, quit into silence.
"Eyes," finished Clove. Black orbs, larger and more liquid than any human's. Beside, Karene shivered visibly at the sight, knitted her shoulders. Below, the auditorium did likewise, twitched like a lot of rabbits shot suddenly dumb and dreadful by the gaze of a fox in the undergrowth. Someone whimpered. Another sobbed. None moved.
"What is happening?" Karene turned to her friend, fear large in her eyes. She dropped her glasses, half stood. "Please, I feel wrong. I think we really must–" Clove seized her wrist, held her still; enraptured, for the creature on stage had begun to sing.
A clear contralto note spilt warm and lovely from smiling lips. A sound so invitingly antithetical to the dread of moments before that the auditorium gasped in choked relief. Then, a complimentary swell of strings.
Another note, ascending. Another peal of strings. Folk began to stand. Another. Higher, quivering with liquid vibrato. Members of the orchestra faltered in their accompaniment, began to clamber from the pit. Yet another, all instrumentation forgot. The aisles and mezzanine rail clamored with pushing, weeping masses. Clove rose, dragged an unresisting Karene to stand with her.
On stage, white, predator's teeth gleamed in limelight, parted with rounded lips in a tremulous solo; unadorned, multitonal. Inhumanly beguiling.
In the spotlight's dark periphery, folk rushed blind for the stage, scrambling over and crushing seatbacks and fellow patrons alike. Bodies tumbled willingly from boxes, balconies, and mezzanine. Screams rang out, somehow softer than any charmed note of song. The singer beamed.
Clove and Karene clung at the rail of their box. "If we stay here, we will die," stammered Clove.
Shaking, Karene glanced to the back of the box, to the crashing riot, to her friend's panicked eyes. "I know."
Hand in gloved hand, they leapt, tumbled to the maddened sea below.
In 3.445, just five years past, a tragedy came to play at the Royal Opera.
A performance of momentous anticipation, composed and constructed by a multinational collection of the era's greatest musical and theatrical minds. Its opening performance, which would host the Coast's most esteemed and evaluated patrons of the arts, was forecasted to be the most expensive and profitable showing of either ballet or opera in history.
Its title: Water Music. The most calamitous and literally deadly tragedy to have ever graced the world of Coastal arts.
What would begin as a shockingly-nouveau performance, renowned for sparking outraged duels and fistfights during its intermission, would be remembered for causing over two dozen fatalities, mass hysteria, and the parading of a siren's corpse through the streets of Fortenshire.
A siren: A creature absent for a century or more from the lexicon of modern folklore. An Othersome brand of sea-monster so reduced in perceived danger as to be considered threatening only by sailors, who had long-ago learned to avoid its charming ways.
Indeed, a tempter and a beguiler of prey grown over-wary of its predator's charms. ** An eater of manflesh so limited in its wiles as to have curtailed even its own depredations, opting instead to dine on seal, muscle, and oyster. A creature reduced from legendary terror of the sea to strange sea-mammal; more alluring, but no faster or more deadly than its better: The shark.
And yet, somehow become the unexpected star of an ill-fated opera, recruited by a foreign composer of strange sensory and social orientation. How this came to pass, none can precisely say, for the man himself, an Adaleut by the name of Andrei Ilyushin, sunk into hermitage and obscurity after the incident.
What can be known is this: Ilyushin was a man of auditory genius, capable of drawing harmonic inspiration from sources he claimed only he could hear. He was also a social recluse, apt to disappear to the vast beaches on the wild Sea of Khawdor for months at a time. Rumor supposes that it was on one of these long hiatuses that Ilyushin encountered a siren, one made cordial by generations of non-predation of humans, and befriended her.
Further, what can also be supposed is this: Ilyushin was immune to one of two of the lethal, otherworldly*** gifts possessed by siren-kind. Sirens, as scholars understand them, emit constantly an aura of infrasound from an organ adjacent to their bronchi. A strange energy which unnerves all but the strongest of wills, summoning a sense of panic and impending doom. For this, the composer, gifted as he was with an uncommon reckoning of sound, had no fear. He had ears only for the siren's second gift: Incredible vocal range and ability.
It is by this natural ability that sirens beguile their prey. A human being, afeared by subaudible emmanations from within the creature, sees only a welcoming, beautiful man or woman singing the most welcoming of melodies. They have no mind for razor teeth, or black eyes, or paddle-legs: Only safety and welcome in the face of inexplicable horror. By this charm, sailors of old were so very easily drawn from the decks of their ships and devoured.
This queer immunity was both the genesis and the undoing of Ilyushin's masterwork. The composer, ignorant of the danger which he had befriended, wrote a bittersweet opera inspired by his inhuman friend. A doomed romance between a sailor and a siren. A groundbreaking piece uniquely composed of both Firlish, Adaleutian, and Otherworldly languages. An epic featuring as characters many a siren, only one of which would be filled by an anonymous star: The genuine article.
By what cunning Ilyushin managed to smuggle his siren into the venue, let alone the Firlish Capital, none can say. Despite his distaste for society, he was yet a fellow of great means, and in the end commanded the secrecy necessary to hide his star soloist in the opera house's undercroft in time for opening night.
That day, it is said, the Royal Operahouse was haunted. By the influence of the latent siren, several cast members were driven to melancholy and understudied at the last minute. Many musicians and property staffers became deliriously, miserably drunk. The director was barely preventing from hanging herself. How the performance ever progressed to its fateful entr'acte, folk can only marvel, for all the while, the Company was forced to endure Ilyushin's unconscious sabotage.
By intermission, Water Music's audacity, combined with the awful effect of a nearby siren, had driven the house to artistic outrage and the bring of violence. Indeed, several duels are rumored to have been fought in that time, most notably one by the producer, who lost. Nudity, incomprehensible language, provocative and vicious applications of ballet: All were an affront to the artistic gentry. The lengths to which Ilyushin had managed to unkilter his audience were sufficient to cause a substantial quantity of walkouts; and these quitters of the performance were perhaps the most lucky.
When the opera's star was finally unveiled, only barely made-up in human guise, Ilyushin's tragedy came to its raucous conclusion. Unaware of both humans' norms and her effect upon their behavior, the siren whipped her audience into wanton, panicked fervor. She was, as it rushed the stage, only the first of the riot's many victims that night.
Ilyushin is rumored to have realized his terrible error only then. Whether he saw, from his seat at the Royal Box, what became of his Othersome friend, none can confirm but the man himself; and he is long since fled.
Since its calamitous first performance, Water Music has been performed only once again. Once, this year. It was met with incredible success, both as a result of its legendary history and its all-human leads.
By its effect, the folk of the Coast once more know the terror of the siren, of beautiful tempters on shorelines and seastones. Queer monsters, once reduced to pretty sea-mammals, now again remembered as beguiling eaters of mens' flesh.
And with every passing year, stories of siren attacks creep from port cities with ever greater frequency. Though absurd, though impossible, it would seem that sirens themselves have heard the stories, found new hunger and new ambition in the cursed tale of Andrei Ilyushin.
Sirens were, on their own, maybe too mealy to describe without some flavor. Add a extra dash of story, and here we are.
* Northerners are rather accustomed to a degree of gender-neutral nudity. To them, to be warm enough to shed any amount of clothing is a luxury, one which they don't hesitate to share in the company of spas, saunas, and boiling hearths. The Coast as a whole, namely the aristocracy and their haute arte, is more prudish.
** Some scholars suppose that the siren, since it evolved not on the Coast but in the seas of the Otherworld, was never meant to pursue humans as prey. Its skills, they posit, were meant to terrify other sea-mammals and simply woo each other. Their beautiful forms, then, are no more purpose-built for luring than the bodies of other fairies. A matter of opportunistic happenstance, and an unfortunate one for human prey.
*** Sirens are among the most common creatures of the Other found on the Coast. They, like others of their kind, and black-blooded, black-eyed, and allergic to iron.