Two Queens of the River
by Aimee Ogden
Now in the days before the cataclysm changed the face of Tannalez, there was only one way to pass by the riverwilds between Bellas-in-the-summit and Lirani-by-the-shore, and that was to entrust yourself to the care of the one who called herself the river queen. That right of royalty she earned not through noble birth nor with a conqueror’s bloody sword, but by skill alone—or rather by skill in combination with a generous portion of luck. But then, using one’s luck well is a skill all its own. There was no man or woman born who could pole the narrow canyons more truly, or dive deeper for a foundered boat or lost passenger.
And the river queen’s village on the riverwilds flourished and grew fat on the coin of travellers, and all who wished and who could pay the fares found safe passage even when the water churned white, even where the river grew deep and narrow to thread the smallest canyons. And all was well along the riverwilds, until the day a goddess awoke from her tenyears slumber in her riverbed and discovered that she had been supplanted in title by this mortal woman who would call herself queen.
A soft cinnamon sky hung close to the earth when the riverwilds erupted. Such a fury of wind and water had only been seen before when storm rains sluiced down the sides of the valley and the gales blew out of the south hot and wet like a lover’s tears. The river queen’s ironwood flatboats, freshly tied up along the shoreline, crashed together like the maws of a mountain dragon, and the crew leapt ashore to save themselves. The passengers ran up into the shelter of the waiting inns with the crew a moment behind, only just in time to avoid the thunderclap of water that crashed onto the rock. Where the water struck, the rock split. And when the wave fell away into the river once more, the goddess stood there in her terrible glory. Behind her, the river calmed.
The goddess who slept in the rivers of Tannalez did not clothe herself in a white cloak woven from the rays of the sun like her skybound sister, and her hair was not bound with soft vines and crooked roots like her brother whose home was the forest. The river goddess wore white foam and sheets of algae like a ragged gown, and her hair hung limp with the smell of rotting leaves. And when she opened her mouth to speak it was full of perfect round pebbles, and water ran past them and down her chin. And she said to the river queen, whose crew had fled up into the village, “Who are you, that you should steal my name and exalt yourself to my equal?”
Goddesses are jealous creatures, but so too was the river queen, who had built her fortune on her reputation alone. Her hands with their leather-hard knuckles went to her hips, and she said to the goddess, “I’m no thief, but I’ll take what’s lying unclaimed. I’ve as much right to the name as you, and if you want it, you’ll have to prize it from my fingers.” And she pitched her voice high, so that it carried to the listening crews and passengers up in the village.
“A challenge, then,” said the goddess, and she smiled, and a new rivulet of gray water dripped down onto her bare white feet. A three-part contest was traditional, when the paths of humankind and godhead crossed. If the river queen’s heart beat off-rhythm with fear then, we will never know. But mortal folk have rarely fared well when matched up against their divine kin. “What do you propose?”
Every child knows it’s bad luck to dictate terms to the gods when they walk among us, so the river queen proposed to split the choosing of the challenges, two for the goddess and one for her own part. And so it was that they agreed upon three trials of skill and bravery. Yet still the river queen held back. “If I win,” she said, “I’ll have of you a coat made from sunlight reflected on the water, and a belt of otterskin to match.”
The goddess turned her head, and ropes of wet hair clung to her cheek. “So you shall,” she said. “And if I win, you will join me in the riverdeeps. I have seventeen concubines to keep me company, but eighteen would please me more.”
And they shook hands on it.
The goddess named the first challenge, which was to sing so sweetly the fish flung themselves out of the river to die at your feet. “Do you mean to measure victory by the quantity of fish that beach, or by the time to first leap?” asked the river queen.
The goddess smiled to show all her pebbled teeth. “We will know the winner when we see her,” she said, and stepped back that the river queen should go first.
Now the flatboat drivers occupy themselves greatly with singing, from the pole-men fore and aft to the captain on her deck to the youths who run back and forth to swab the deck and muck the livestock stalls. A captain must have a voice that carries across the water, but it is also good to have a voice that makes the crew love her. And the river queen’s crew treasured her greatly. Her feet bare as ever they were, she waded ankle-deep into the river, and sang a song of a lover as dark as heartwood vinegar, the honey-tang of his lips and the sweet acid smell of his body, long gone now to the white city on the hill, where no river runs. When she finished, not an eye of those listening was dry, though none could say whether the goddess’ cheeks shone with tears or only the damp of her sodden hair.
One fish twisted between the river queen’s ankles as the song died in her mouth, and her hand flashed down. A spray of water, and she clasped the thrashing slenderfish behind its fins. “There,” she said, and heaved the fish ashore to flounder in the sandy mud at the goddess’s feet. “One fish, as ordered.”
“Come ashore,” said the goddess, and the river queen obeyed. But the goddess did not move to take the river queen’s place on the bank. She stood where she was, bare feet planted in the soft mud, and she opened her mouth.
Her song had no words, none that any of those in attendance could ever describe or explain. But the sorrow in her voice scraped the insides of ribcages and wrapped icy fingers around intestines. When the river queen came back to herself, her face was in the mud, and a whole school of desperate, gasping fish slapped at her as if she could save them.
She could not, but perhaps she could yet save herself, for the next challenge was one of her own devising. “Across the river,” she said, “and we’ll see who swims the fastest.”
Now this was before the rainy season came that year, and so surely the chill of the water must have shocked the air out of the river queen’s lungs when she ran and dove headlong into the current. The goddess walked out behind her, bare feet bare rippling the water where they struck, and the flatboat crews streamed down from the village to follow the contestants across the river. They could barely make out the river queen’s long dark arms where they flashed above the water. The goddess stepped up onto the shore first, and stood, her white arms still at her sides, while the river queen staggered up out of the river shallows. The river queen’s breath came ragged and fast, but she said, between heaves, “And that one’s for me.”
The goddess drew back, and a sneer curled her pale lips. “I arrived long before you!”
“You arrived afoot,” said the river queen, and put her hands on her thighs to push herself upright fully. “Which wasn’t to the terms we settled on.”
“You said across the river.”
“And I said swim as well,” said the river queen, and an uneven cry of agreement came up from the flatboats behind her, where pole-men strained their backs to hold the flotilla in place against the river’s progress. And so the score was tied.
The goddess did not smile this time, but reached deep into her mouth, past her blue lips and past the pebbles. When she withdrew her fingers, she held her prize aloft for all to see: a single pearl as white as the sun and as large as a grape. “Our third and final challenge,” she said. “Dive deep, little queen, for to the victor belong the spoils.”
The river queen held her hand aloft, and for a moment the goddess startled. But the river queen cried only, “Belt!” and from one of the watching ships a pole-man answered her call. A lead diving-belt arced across the ochre sky and the river queen caught it mid-air even as she dove forward and disappeared beneath the current just over the drop-off.
Goddesses do not, broadly speaking, humble themselves so far as to run after mortals. But on that day, the goddess did not find it too far below her dignity to splash into the water with her skirts of algae churning at her ankles, her knees, and finally up to her waist before she too disappeared.
Not a crewman or woman dared to break the surface of the water once the two contestants vanished. To intervene, even incidentally, between a goddess and her intended prize would not write a happy ending to any mortal’s story. So they clung to the railings and peered down into the green-brown waters.
Long minutes past, and the river queen was not the only one who must have held on dearly to her breath. The sun had settled a little lower into the mountains when the goddess surfaced first. Her cry was so sharp it could have shattered the sky, were the heavens not made of such soft unfired clay. But did that cry call for victory, or frustration?
Another splash made heads turn: the river queen whooped for air several yards downriver. One of her own flatboats caught up with her first, and she climbed up the nearest pole to the deck without a word. Her crew knotted around her, but she waved them back, and from her own mouth she drew the pearl of glory. “Not much of a meal,” she crowed, for the goddess to hear. “I can see why you spit it back.”
A wave carried the goddess to the river queen’s deck, and the crew stepped back as water ran over the deck and the goddess herself set foot on their vessel. “The pearl you have earned,” she said, though she plucked it from the river queen’s fingers. Her other hand, pale as driftwood, pushed the spiderweb of wet black hair from the river queen’s brow. “I will set it with shipwreck silver and it will adorn your brow, for you are the river queen now, well and truly.”
The cry went up hale and strong from the crew, but worry pinched the river queen’s lips. She said, “I’ll have the prize I was promised.”
The goddess said, “Yes, a cloak of sun-on-the-water, and a hundred gowns more, of whitewater silk and opal-shell and mist. For you are no common concubine, but my near equal. River queen you shall be, and so will I, queen consorts together beneath the waves.” And she smiled her pebble-smile, and the river queen raised her fist, and the whitewater wave that swept them both overboard nearly foundered the flatboat whole.
Now it was some sevenmonth before the river queen was seen in the village again, and she never did say how it was that she came to leave the goddess’s company. But that is why the captains of the riverwilds between Bellas-in-the-summit and Lirani-by-the-shore call themselves Nettlefish and Mist-Eyes and Voice-on-the-Water now, and not River Queen nor the Lady of the Currents nor any such high-lofted thing.
And then there was the diadem, which came home with the river queen, too–but of course that is for another story altogether.