At Sunset

Serinna found the entertainment under the library index for history, when she was supposed to be looking up xenobiology. As she went to her mirror that evening, the first voice-over was still in her mind: She saw the knight in the mirror at sunset. What knight? she wondered, having learnt the word in other entertainments. Why at sunset? She brushed and combed quickly, then lifted both arms to knot up her hair. In the mirror, over her shoulder, something moved.

At first it might have been a comet, or a very slow shooting star: a silver spark that did not cross the mirror but seemed to move forward out of its depths. Widening, brightening, swelling from comet to globe and globe to dome it came, no longer twinkling but shining steadily. Then swaying, oscillating, flashing and dulling under some sort of shadow, accumulating a visor, a crest: a nodding, hackled, black and scarlet panache.

Coming closer, moving in the mirror as if beyond a window, among the tree-trunks of a forest, where the old chest had always stood behind her, on the far side of her room.

She might have turned, she might have called out. She might have breathed, but the breath was stopped in her lungs as her arms were locked in mid-air.

She had time to see the horse’s head, the synchronized nod of ears. The top of its white blaze, a thicket of forelock, a bridle out of dream fantasias, enameled buckle-bosses, palm-wide scarlet reins. The shape of helmet and chain mail coif, the ghost-white of a shadowy surcoat, an indistinct emblem on the breast. The angle of a scabbard slanted across thigh and saddle-flap. The kite-point, at one shoulder, of the back-slung shield.

Then her hair cascaded as her arms fell down and she spun in a silver-and-gold whirlwind and the forest was gone.


By morning she had persuaded herself it was imagination. I’m not really seeing visions, she told herself, in the intervals while she practiced scales in the music-rooms and scraped scales in the kitchen, to Welinda’s muttered, “Can’t they ever find a fish with skin?” I’m perfectly normal, she insisted, as she copied yet another chart in the eternal Genetics class. When she tried to tell her best friend Flosse, and Flosse tinkled a laugh that echoed off the pool-side, and cooed, “Serinna, you’ve just stayed under too long!” she agreed. Imagination. Silliness. Delusion, maybe. But that night she did her hair in the other mirror, down at the landing’s edge.

She did not know if she was relieved or sorry when the mirror stayed unchanged.


He was fighting next time. The mirror seemed to fly open in her face and she hurled herself back with half coiled hair collapsing like golden ropes. Then she lunged forward, heart gyrating, trying not to scream aloud: I didn’t dream it, I didn’t hallucinate—I knew I saw it, and I was right…!

Shadow blurred all but motion and the frenzied flash-flash of the sword. Trees she identified in a snatch of paleobotany, that pointy one’s a fir, the pale trunks are alder, those stretched-finger leaves are an oak. But it’s so dark…

The murk was more than forest shade. Dusk? Then a ray of light slashed down from above and the murk went darker still and she thought, No. Smoke.

The fire came then, a furious gush too luridly scarlet for the dusk to hold. She nearly flung herself down the way he did, as leaves crisped and bark seared and twigs blazed into a torch-track, searing above his head. Lights clashed across the forest floor, blue-white sunbeam, crimson flame. The glow shone from his helmet side and sparked on the sword-point and lit tatters of flying surcoat. Then the dragon reared beyond him, flaming maw and huge nailed talons and wing-sails darker than midnight cloud.

The shadow swooped down so fast she nearly cried aloud. She did fling her hands out as her mouth shaped before she could stop it, Look out!

Staggering backward, he looked up. The dragon reared higher yet. Some niggle in her brain asked, Where did the trees go? as the wings swept up and forward and it spurted another blast of fire and came crashing down.

She wanted to scream. She wanted to cringe and shut her eyes. He could never survive, he would be burnt, be crushed…

He jerked his head back and then he did run with all his might, in under the falling night-mass with the sword reared upright, hilt clenched in both his hands.

The dragon struck. The talons flashed. The sword flashed behind them and disappeared to the hilt under the monster’s arm.

The forest went away. The mirror blurred. A last image clung there, the tiny figure propped on a tree-trunk, wiping at his helm, while beyond him in the shadow-murk trees went down like scythed grass-stems and a black fountain gouted upward as darkness convulsed.


She was at the mirror next morning before the sun leaned on her windowsill. She would have been at it all night, had curfew left her anything to see. Why do we have to save power all the time, she cursed, tossing to and fro, just because the tides might cut us off after Equinox? She was at the mirror as soon as it was light enough to move.

She peered and stared and peered, leaning closer, drawing back, twisting her hair away, moving to this side, to that. The familiar shapes and colors shifted behind her, the chest’s corner, the blue-grey wall paint, the base of the picture above her bed. The summit of Mons Lunaris, snow-planes brilliant against the black of space. Her face, and nothing else.

At noon she sneaked away from a breathing class and went back. At mid-afternoon she pleaded a slightly sore shoulder and cut short her breast-stroke tutorial. And finally, torn between hope and despair and exasperation, she came at sunset, while it was still just light enough to do up her hair.

She had barely looked in when the mirror began to change before her as the afterglow in the room was altering behind. But as the light around her faded, the shadowy aisles of forest began to work with chains of glow-worm lights.

At first she thought the dragon had set it all on fire. Then she understood it was not fire at all. They were what the entertainments called torches: wood-based flares, carried by hand, high above the bearers’ heads. A procession of torches, snailing forward, out of the trees’ shade, into open air.

Twilight was fading in the mirror as well, but it showed her the torch-bearers in their coarse brown homespun clothes, their clumsy hide shoes, the way they kept looking ahead and then behind, the way they leaped and silently laughed or cheered, so as they left the forest the torches danced giddily as fireflies in thick summer air. So she saw quite clearly the centre of the procession, where the torches clustered thickest, and amid their weaving golden trails, the knight.

He was back on his horse, a tall bronze chestnut almost as fine as the bridle it wore. He had his helm off, his chain-mail coif down about his neck. Soot smeared his surcoat remnants and daubed his face. He had slung his shield again, but in his hand, though the blade was gone, he still carried the hilt of the sword.

Dissolved, she realized, enthralled, as the mirror brought him closer. The blade had been eaten by the dragon’s blood.

As they came into the open he lifted his face. A comely man, she decided, for all the battle-grime. A shapely nose, fine sweeping whiskers, big dark eyes. Their expression changed as the battle-memory faded, the stark set of mouth and jaw easing into relief. Becoming a shy, charming smile.

Because the torch-bearers were crowding in around him, hands reaching to pat his foot, his knee, his thigh, his bridle-hand, his horse’s neck, shoulder, flank. The horse arched its neck and tossed its head like a seasoned actor taking bows. The knight tried to acknowledge each offering and ended in more confusion, charming his audience all over again. Like the torch-bearers, she pressed closer, nose all but up against the mirror-surface, silently begging, Don’t let it get dark yet.

The twilight yielded hints of fences ahead, yards, wheel-ruts, building silhouettes. Another open space developed, with taller buildings beyond, lights gathering, a tumult that spoke a yet larger crowd. It’s his welcome, she thought. The place nearest the forest, the village, the town—entertainments did not clarify the difference—whatever it is, they’ve heard he killed the dragon. They’ve made him a feast.

Many willing hands guided the horse. Dark forms wove everywhere in the mirror’s forefront, but she could still see the knight above their heads. Watch the horse come to a standstill, eager hands held out for the bridle, for the shield, to help him down.

He turned in the saddle as someone took the horse’s bit, and let the reins go, working to unsling his shield. He handed it down to another pair of hands, and looked up.

Across the crowd’s heads, into the mirror’s core. Straight in her eyes.

Her muscles froze. A lightning bolt went down her back.

He sees me. It’s not just pictures. He’s real.

Sheer terror seared her like the lightning, vivid and brilliant as a lightning strike. I’ve broken it. I just wanted to know what happened, but it’s real and I’ve broken it and what will happen—sea and air, what happens now?

Inside the mirror the torch-lights, the crowd, the oncoming darkness were all slowing to a stop. The knight was frozen too. Rigid in the saddle. Only his eyes affirming what she saw.

I can see you, too.

Then torches waved, people moved. The horse champed its bit. And the knight swung down so fast he staggered headlong into the crowd and sent people right and left, shoving toward her as if none of them existed, nothing else mattered. Nothing except what he had seen.

He burst back into open twilight and stumbled to a stop. Stared this way, then that. Craned his head high, dropped it down, actually rubbed his eyes.

The mirror began to fade. She clutched the rim, heart leaping around in her throat, almost daring to rub the surface, wanting to shout, Don’t, don’t finish—not yet!

But inexorably, the window had begun to close. The last thing she saw was the shadow of the knight, turning and turning in the dusk with every move crying louder than words could: Where did she go? She has to be here. She was right before my eyes. Where has she gone?


That night she hardly slept at all. She knew it was vain, but she was back at the mirror by dawnlight, hoping against hope that the change would come, the trees assemble, branch by branch, the light move and coalesce in the forest’s depth. When the sun climbed fully above her window, she could hardly bear to turn away. To admit it at last: There will be nothing, now, until, perhaps, tonight.

She made another excuse from her very last singing lesson. She was back before the mirror with the sun still a hand-span over her window-rim, the room bright in its reflected glow. She barely heard Flosse and Welinda and Molpe calling, teasing, reminding her of the final swimming class, that it was almost Moon-match. “And we have to be ready for the tide!” Impatiently she scooped the silvery gold falls of hair back over her shoulder, erasing their voices, staring in the mirror, waiting for her own image to fade and vanish. For the sun to set.

Interminably, imperceptibly, the light turned golden as the sunset opened beyond her window, dyeing high banks of copper and tangerine cloud. And the forest came, between blink and blink, in the falling rose-glow at her back.

He had reached day’s end too. His horse, unsaddled, picketed, drowsed beyond the smoldering fire. The knight was stretched at the fireside, cradled in a hammock of roots, one knee raised, one leg sprawled flat. He had an instrument in his lap. Some kind of lute, she thought, remembering other entertainments, and spared a moment to wonder how he had carried it, on a war-horse, into the forest’s heart.

Then she forgot, because he was singing, sweeter than any man’s song she ever heard before. And she could hear the words.

Her lips came up against the mirror’s face. She hung bewitched, as air and meaning flowed through her together, as if strands of honeyed glass threaded all her veins with light.

His lady, he called her, his mistress, ruler of his sword and heart. His dream, his vision, the maiden in the moated grange that he had seen once, leaning from her walled casement, and lost in the moment, though he could never forget. Her hair more silver than the moon, her eyes deeper, darker than the forest pools, the sweet oblivion of her mouth…

She forgot the room, the mirror, she forgot everything else. She leaned closer and closer, mouth, face, hands, now, up against the barricading glass.

He looked up. The tune broke. Then he was on his feet, the lute tossed down, striding over the tree-roots, past the fire, his hands up, reaching as wildly as her own for the wall of glass.

Her hands were on the mirror. He stretched to match her fingers, his hands to hers. Their fingertips met. His face was inches from her own.

The splendid glossy brown whiskers had gone. His jaw and mouth were naked, pale as hairless hide. His fine, sheeny teeth had vanished too. His exquisitely flat and full-flared nose had become a peak, a prow, standing out like a fin, a deformation of his face. And his eyes…

They were still brown, but the pupils had shrunk. And around the beautiful velvet brown—

They had whites.


When she found herself again she was on the floor, with the old chest pressed into her back. Her hands were trembling against her throat, she was hunched as if to hide inside her fallen hair. Her hair, her face, her hands, everything was wet.

And tears dewed the mirror that lay beside her, gleaming dully from a dozen shards, like a scatter of coldly moonlit lakes.


It wasn’t real, she told herself at last. The tears welled again as she tried to beat them back. It wasn’t real, none of it. Not the forest, not the noble warrior, not the song, not the honeyed, heart-cracking words. You’re spending far too much time on this stuff. Flosse was right.

Like an old woman, she moved, wiping her nose with the back of a wrist. She looked down at the mirror shards, paling in the twilight, and pressed a shudder back to nothingness. It can be fixed tomorrow. Let it be now. It’s just one more thing to forget.

She looked up, past where the mirror had been, over her window-sill.

The sun had disappeared at last. A slow dove-grey crept up toward where the last banners of sunset would be hanging, high in the darkened air. At its lower fringes, silver crept as slowly from hint to intimation to the first exquisitely pure harbingers of the foremost moon.

She shook her hair away as her friends’ voices came back to her. The swimming class. The rehearsal, one last rehearsal, before the Moon-match arrives. Before the moons rise together, and the tide comes, the double tide, the Equinox tide, consummation time. Out there, the first rollers are already beginning to thrum against the beach.

Time to remember who you are, she told herself. Time to forget this—imagination—and live for now. I know we’re supposed to learn, to remember, to imagine what it’s like to walk under those trees with the names we learn, and ride on supposed-to-be horses, but that was enough. No more entertainments. No more palaeobotany, no more xenobiology. Time to dismiss this—our—discarded past. Not to linger in this cocoon any longer. Not to dream, but to be.

Her hand went to the wall beside the door, to the control she had never touched before.

She pressed the button. The simulator hummed and died. Chest, bed, walls vanished. The floor, the shards of mirror, were gone. Behind her now glittered only the surface of her personal bath.

She looked out over the rocks, glistening dusk-brown, undisguised, peaked and hummocked to the water’s rim. The real world, she thought. Here. Now.

The last flags of sunset hung gold and lavender over a cobalt satin sea. Through the wave-wash, her head cocked to a tiny, drifting sound. Distant, unbearable sweetness. The first snatch of menfolk’s song.

On the nearer rocks most of her sisters had heard it too. Some had prepared already, humming scales, gathering mirrors and combs. Over by the sea’s edge, Flosse was trying trills and phrases of tune.

The stranger’s face came back to her, weird beyond all imagining. In what possible way, she wondered, could anyone respond to that? Love, hate, fear, repulsion? No normal word would fit.

A shudder rippled through her. I don’t believe it, she told herself. Genetics or history or whatever else they say, I don’t believe we did all that stupid stuff about crossing voids in “star-ships.” We were born here. We began the way we are, we’ve always been this way. We can’t be descended from, we couldn’t feel anything for something that looked like that.

But why, then, another voice whispered, did that happen with the mirror? Why did he—it—see you? Why could you hear what it—he—sang?

Why did you listen? she would not let it say.

But the other entertainments, it persisted. Tens, dozens of them. They never— reacted. That never happened before.

Imagination, she told it flatly, and cleared her lungs with a long exhaling breath. Just imagination. Remembering the entertainment. Imagining it all.

She gathered up her comb and unbound her hair, and worked her way slowly, carefully, out to her chosen place. The simulators were all off now, but as she smoothed the scales over her hips, a snatch of weather-warning nattered at her over the rocks.

“star-watch say… world passing through wave-front… supernova… from an impacting star… galaxy long ago and far, far away… interactive entertainment capsules… strange observations to be expected… no cause for alarm…”

So it was just a malfunction, really. He actually was a— figment. Just an entertainment. Not even a person. Never— real.

A small pain whispered, brief as a song’s close, somewhere under her heart.

What if he had been real? What if we ever could have— spoken? Talked?

If we ever could have met?

But how could we talk? What could we tell each other? We couldn’t even—walk together, or whatever it is they do. Or did. As for anything more…

She closed her eyes a moment and carefully, painfully, pictured closing her heart as well. Whatever our—my—people were, whatever we could have been, this is what we are. This is all we can ever be. Here and now.

The gadfly voice whispered, Are you sure?

She bit her lip and closed the last door behind her. He didn’t see me. I didn’t want him. It was a malfunction. That was all.

She flipped her tail fins to and fro and opened her gill-slits wide to the first delirious taste of ocean salt. The tide had quickened, water swirling over the rocks. Nerve and bone were insistent now: Not land. Sea. Not forest. Water. Man-flesh. Sunset, knives honed, men calling, women waiting. Singing. And the singers’ answer. Blood and man-seed mingled in the spray.

She opened her mouth and licked air as her eye-teeth came down. This I was trained and made for. Now I understand that, this is all I want. She turned her dark, wholly dark eyes seaward, into the sweep of rising waves. There can never be anything more.

At the song’s end she knotted up her hair and dived.