Akane fought the urge to thrash impatiently, since muddying the water would only delay her transformation from fish to woman. She floated in her shallow seawater pool and waited for moonrise. The salty water was warm and calm—it would be a lovely summer night. And Isao was home, back from his annual journey to the emperor’s palace. He was waiting on the shore.
Silvery light filtered through the leafy branches and sank into the water. Akane transformed the instant the moonlight touched her. Her pure white scales melted into soft, warm skin, and her red markings became a brilliant silk kimono.
The water parted around her in a shimmering curtain. She rose from the pool and ran into her Lord’s arms.
He twirled her around, then held her tight and kissed her hair. Worry lines creased his handsome face, and his shoulders were rigid with tension.
Akane guided him deeper into the garden. The scents of night-blooming flowers—all planted for her pleasure—drifted in the air. “Isao, you must tell me what troubles you.”
Isao sighed and pushed both hands through his long, black hair. “It is not your worry, my pretty one.”
“If it is your worry, then it is mine,” Akane said. She took his hands between hers.
“An army approaches. I do not know what they want, but I have learned that their leader is an old enemy.”
Fear sliced through Akane’s belly. “Did the emperor send them?”
Isao shook his head. “If the emperor wanted me dead, he’d need only command it.”
Akane shuddered. “I don’t know what I would do if something were to happen to you.”
“Lord Kenta, my old enemy, is a hard, cruel man. He hates the old ways, and I’ve long questioned his loyalty to the emperor.”
“Have you sent word to the emperor? Will he send help?”
“If he can.”
The doubt in his voice made Akane shiver. “Is there anything I can do? I have little magic, but it is yours to command.”
Isao shook his head. “If Kenta knew you were here, he would kill you. You must promise me, that if the worst happens, you will flee.”
Akane pulled Isao close, memorizing the feel of his skin against hers. “If he hurts you, I will destroy him.”
“No! You mustn’t let him make you into something you’re not. You are the most gentle creature I’ve ever known. It is one of the things I love best about you. Please, promise me you’ll go.”
Akane sighed. “I promise. Now, let us spend the rest of tonight thinking of more pleasant things. Worry can wait till morning.”
Isao’s worry vanished beneath an indulgent smile. “As you wish, my love.
Akane drifted listlessly in her pool. The days after the full moon were always the hardest. She felt trapped in her scaly body—she longed for the wind in her hair, smooth silk against her skin, and her lord’s touch.
A servant scattered food for her, and she ate slowly. Last night, she and Isao had feasted on sashimi and sweetened rice cakes. Her fish food simply didn’t compare.
Days passed. The sharp edges of her memories faded, and she settled into lazy contentment, drifting in sun-warmed water, eating when fed, and waiting for the next full moon.
She could sense tensions rising in the household staff. The servant who fed her didn’t stay to watch the sun flash on her scales as she ate. Weeds spread in the garden. When Isao came to visit her, he just sat and trailed his fingers in the water. Normally, he’d tell her about the tiny details of his days.
Now, he was silent.
She wondered if they were under siege. If the Emperor might send aid in time. But there was nothing she could do, so she swam, and ate, and waited.
Then one night, when the moon had shrunk to a sliver in the sky, banging echoed through the garden. Harsh voices shouted over one another, and black smoke billowed out of the house.
Akane drifted to the surface. Her mind felt dull and stagnant. What was happening? She remembered her lord’s enemy and his army, and fear flowed through her like the water through her gills.
She jumped out of the water for a better view, but saw nothing. The thickening smoke stung her scales. She cursed her form. If only she was a kitsune or a tanuki, she might be able to help. Sharp teeth were a weak weapon against armored soldiers, but at least she wouldn’t be trapped in this accursed pool.
The vibration of running feet trembled through the earth, and Isao burst into the garden. He was just visible through the swirling smoke. His unbound hair blew behind him as he ran, his armor was only half donned, and he carried his helmet in one hand.
He threw something with his other hand, but she couldn’t see it in the darkness. It splashed into her pool and sank into the silty bottom.
The smoke parted, and another man appeared behind Isao, his blood-darkened katana raised.
Akane tried to cry out, to warn her love, but she had no voice.
The stranger’s sword moved like a shadow in the thin moonlight, and he sliced Isao’s head from his shoulders in one swift stroke. Isao’s body crumpled, and his head rolled into Akane’s pool. Clouds of blood swirled in the water, giving it an iron tang.
Grief ripped Akane’s soul. Silent screams echoed in her heart as Isao’s head sank.
The stranger laughed.
Days passed, and no one brought Akane any food. She dug into the bottom of the pool, looking for something to eat. Instead, she found a heavy iron key. She recognized it. She and Isao had used it to slip out though the door in the back of the garden. They’d gone for a moonlit hike to the ocean. He’d composed a poem about the rhythm of the surf, and asked her if she missed her freedom—missed the open waters of the ocean, and the unbounded life she’d had there.
She’d laughed and told him he was her freedom. That all the open space in the world couldn’t replace the touch of his hand.
She wondered if he might have survived if he hadn’t hurried to the garden to throw the key to her.
Hatred filled the cracks in her broken heart, but she remembered her promise. She would use the key to escape on the night of the full moon. She would go to the ocean and live there. Eventually, the pain in her heart would ease. Her kind lived long lives. Maybe someday she would find another lover.
Isao died making sure she could survive. She had to leave when she could.
And she couldn’t starve—it would dishonor his memory.
She wondered if all of the servants had been killed. She managed to catch a few careless dragonflies, but they weren’t enough, and there was no other source of sustenance. Her entire body ached with hunger. It was an unaccustomed feeling.
The moon was less than half full.
She wished she could weep.
She floated next to Isao’s head. Lord Kenta had left it in her pool. Isao’s tangled hair floated like lotus stems and his face had started to bloat. The water had turned his skin translucent and altered the shape of his cheeks, the curve of his lips.
She stared into his eyes. They’d always been so kind and gentle, had always gazed at her with love and sweet desire. They were the most beautiful brown, with tiny black flecks. Now, they were vacant and strange in his rotting face.
They tasted wonderful.
The hunger pains passed, but shame and hatred burned in Akane’s gut. Soon, Isao’s face was unrecognizable. It didn’t make things better.
Lord Kenta squatted down next to her pool. “Oh, Isao. Eaten by your own pretty, useless fish. I couldn’t imagine a more fitting end.”
He reached into the pool, toward Isao’s head. Akane threw herself at him, and sliced deep into his palm with her spiny dorsal fin. The iron tang of blood filled the water again, but this time she relished it. She memorized its taste and used it to alter his will with her magic.
He would not take Isao from her.
He would order her fed.
Lord Kenta cried out in pain and fell back, clutching his hand to his chest. “Your fish is a surprisingly fierce protector, though. Fine. I’ll let it keep you, Isao.” He stood and stared down into the water.
Akane swam slow circles around Isao’s head. The sunlight glinted on her scales. Pure white. Bright red. Her will soaked into Kenta’s soul.
“She is a beautiful creature. I suppose it would be a shame to let the thing starve once she’s done with you.” He chuckled. “Maybe I’ll use this pool to dispose of all of my enemies.”
Akane shuddered and promised herself that she would escape when the full moon rose.
The next day, a servant scattered a bit of food on the pool’s surface.
Akane ate, hid among the floating tendrils of Isao’s hair, and waited.
The full moon arrived and Akane changed. She remembered the taste of Lord Kenta’s blood and longed for vengeance, but she’d promised Isao that she’d escape. Maybe, if she got away now, she could forget. The taste of her lover’s flesh was burned into her mind. Her human stomach lurched and she tasted bile.
She dipped her arm into the warm water and pulled the key out of her pool. She hurried to the garden door, slinking from shadow to shadow as silently as she could.
Isao had ordered the garden empty at night, but she couldn’t be sure that Lord Kenta had done the same. She didn’t want to imagine what his men would do if they caught her.
She reached the door and pushed aside the ivy that cascaded down over it.
The old, rusty lock was hidden behind loops of chain that glittered in the moonlight.
The walls were too high to climb and the main gate would be too well guarded. She crept to the kitchen, but the door there was chained, too.
Escape was no longer an option.
She needed a new plan.
Akane had never had to use her magic before Isao died. He had taken care of her because he loved her—she’d never needed to compel him.
Still, she knew how.
She slipped into what had been Isao’s room. Lord Kenta slept there now, on Isoa’s futon, surrounded by Isao’s things.
The room still smelled like her lover.
Akane lifted Lord Kenta’s katana from its stand and drew the steel blade silently from its sheath.
She considered Lord Kenta’s sleeping face in the moonlight. Slack and open-mouthed. He snored.
It would be easy to end it now, to stab his sword into his steadily rising and falling chest. She glanced around, hoping to find the key that she needed among his possessions.
She saw no keys.
If she killed him, another man—maybe a good man loyal to the Emperor Isao had loved—might rule here instead.
But Isao would still be dead. And Akane would still be trapped.
And Lord Kenta deserved to suffer.
She used her small control to deepen his slumber, then cut a lock of his hair and sheathed his katana, taking care to keep her movements silent. She gathered the hair and stole back to her pool. She examined it in the moonlight. His hair was darker than Isao’s—and coarser. She wondered what it would look like floating around his rotting head.
She slipped it into her mouth. It was coarse and unpleasant on her tongue. It slid and crunched between her teeth when she chewed it, caught in her throat when she swallowed.
But her power over Lord Kenta grew. She sensed him, sleeping in her lord’s room. She twisted his dreams into nightmares simply because she could. The moon fell and she dove back into the water, pleased with her night’s work.
Akane floated underwater next to Isao’s head. His remaining flesh was heavy with saltwater and rot. White bone gleamed through in places. His nose had caved in. Clumps of his hair had pulled free and floated in the water.
She plagued Lord Kenta with her mind. All of his dreams grew dark and troubled. He heard treasonous whispers from empty hallways and enemy footsteps approaching from behind even when the sun was high. When Akane felt most unhappy, he heard Isao’s remembered laugh.
Her contact with his mind sickened her. She knew him deeply—more intimately than she’d ever known Isao. She knew the shape of his dreams, the texture of his nightmares, and the taste of his ambition.
She knew that he plotted against the Emperor, that he overtaxed his subjects, that he enjoyed causing his enemies pain.
He sat next to her pool and gazed down at Isao’s head with bag-weighted, bloodshot eyes. His skin was pale and loose, and his hands trembled. “How are you doing this?” he asked. “What can I do to make you stop? Please. Make it stop, Isao. I—I can give you a proper burial.”
Akane swam slowly between him and Isao’s head.
“Call off your damn fish! I’m trying to make peace!”
She wondered if burial would please Isao’s spirit. For a moment, she considered letting Lord Kenta take him.
But no. Then she’d be alone. She reached into Lord Kenta’s mind and drew on his anger, on his arrogance. Burying Isao would be seen as weakness, as respect for the old ways he’d always despised. He couldn’t let a few bad dreams affect his actions!
He would show Isao what he thought of him.
Lord Kenta’s jaw hardened. “You don’t deserve burial. I’ll show you what you deserve.”
He pissed into Akane’s pool. It tasted sour, like nervous sweat. Dark laughter bubbled in her mind and her control over him strengthened. There was only one thing left to collect now.
When the moon was full again, he’d be hers.
The month dragged by. Her connection to Lord Kenta kept her humanity fresh—she could not simply sink into her fish self and wait. Tormenting Lord Kenta grew dull. She was impatient for her revenge—and her escape.
When she let his dreams be, they were filled with laughing children—his children—and his homely, sweet wife. She erased their faces, made them laughing, playing abominations.
She didn’t want to see them.
She dreamed in thin, watery fragments. Also of children, but of the ones she and Isao would have had. She imagined a little group—Isao, with two little boys and a baby girl—waiting for her at the edge of her pool. They’d take moonlit picnics to the ocean, sing silly, happy songs, and run and play together on the beach.
But the dreams never felt real.
The full moon finally rose. Akane shifted out of her fish form and stepped out of her pool. She combed and arranged her long, dark hair. She gathered and crushed safflower petals to paint her lips a deep red to match her kimono. She gathered a handful of orange lilies, laid them by the pool, and scattered forget-me-nots on the water’s surface. Isao’s head was a distorted shadow. She closed her eyes and remembered him as he had been. “Goodbye,” she whispered.
Then she went to Lord Kenta. She knelt beside him and kissed him.
She did not try to imagine that the lips against hers were Isao’s. She remembered her hatred with every part of her being. Lord Kenta tasted like despair and stale saké, and he smelled like he hadn’t washed in weeks.
He woke moaning with pleasure and desire.
He stared at her in wonder, and she knew that he would have been entranced by her beauty, even without her mental control. He was dazzled by her pale skin, raven hair, blood-red lips. No normal woman could compare to her. “Who are you?” he asked.
Akane unfastened the robe he slept in. He was already fully erect. She smiled at him. “I am Isao’s fish.”
He tried to sit up, to ask more questions, but she pushed him back, both with her cold hands and her mind. She trailed her fingernails down his battle-scarred chest. She traced his old wounds and wished that one of them had killed him years ago.
She took him into her mouth, and it ended quickly. His seed was tangy and sticky in the back of her throat. She swallowed. He was hers.
“What are you?” he whispered.
“Your mistress.” Akane stood and pulled his katana free of its sheath. Its weight felt good in her hand. She was ready to use it. “Where is the key to the chains on the garden gate?”
“My head guard keeps it.”
“Cover yourself, then go get it. Tell him that you wish to walk down to the ocean. Alone. Don’t raise any suspicions.”
“I don’t have a key for the door,” he said.
Akane smiled. “I do. If your guard asks, tell him you found it in the fish pool. Now go.”
Kenta obeyed. He returned with a small, shiny key.
She led him through the garden, still carrying his unsheathed sword. The chains fell away under his hands, and the door swung open under hers. They walked toward the ocean. Soon, Akane could hear the rhythm of the surf.
Beneath her control, Kenta’s mind scrambled. “I have a wife,” he said. “Two daughters.”
“I know you do. I had a lover,” Akane said.
“Isao? You loved Isao?
“With all of my being.
“Nothing you can do will bring him back.”
Akane shrugged. “He wanted me to flee—to keep true to my gentle nature. You shouldn’t have chained the garden door.”
They reached the ocean. It stretched beautiful and dark in the moonlight. The smell soothed Akane’s heart. This was home—the only one she had left. And she could return. There was just one task left before her.
“Kneel,” Akane ordered.
Kenta struggled against her will, but his knees refused to hold him. He crumpled. Tears coursed down his cheeks. “Please,” he said. “Show mercy.”
She remembered Isao’s gentle smile. “I have no mercy in me.”
“What will you do with me?”
“I will throw your head into the sea, for the fish to eat. Your men will find your body.”
Kenta struggled to find his bravery.
He failed. He whimpered. He cried and begged and invoked Isao’s urging for mercy.
Akane cut his head off. She picked it up by the hair, held it up to the moon, and screamed her victory.
She swallowed the key to the garden door. It scraped her throat raw and weighed heavy in her belly, but it had been Isao’s last gift to her. She would not leave it behind. She stepped out of her kimono and left it on the shore. She wouldn’t need it again.
She swam with clumsy, human strokes, clutching Kenta’s head, until the moon fell. She transformed into a pure white fish.
She dove and let her enemy drift away. The smell of his blood would draw predators soon.
She sank into her fish self, only remembering her life before when the key in her belly shifted painfully.
When the full moon rose, she dove deep. Deeper than it’s light could reach. She had no desire to transform again—no desire to revisit her memories.
She swam and waited to forget.
Author Bio: Jamie Lackey lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and cat. Her fiction has appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and the Stoker Award-winning After Death… She’s a member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Her short story collection, One Revolution, is available on Amazon.com. Find her online at www.jamielackey.com.