Château d’Eau



Please don’t be afraid. I’m not actually a monster.

Well, perhaps I am a monster. I know that princesses are not supposed to look like this. But you’re quite safe. Do I look like I have eaten any children today? Exactly. You’d know if I had.

Listen, you applied for this job, and I’d still like to hire you, if you would just calm down.   Now, stop fiddling with your diving mask, and I’ll tell you what really happened. If you have any questions, just make a sign, and I’ll answer them.

No, I don’t need a mask these days. We’ll get to that.

It’s my father’s fault, really. He was always obsessed with the truth – and convinced that everyone was trying to deceive him.  Not an attractive combination.

My father styled himself King Gradlon the Truthful, but behind his back, the court called him Gradlon the Blunt, or sometimes Gradlon the Harsh. Not to his face, though. Nobody was quite willing to risk that. For a man obsessed with honesty, my father never did have the knack of inspiring sincerity in his court. Still, he himself could always be relied upon to be honest, open and transparent with his subjects, particularly when telling them about their flaws. And his passion for seeking and telling the truth, for probing into his people’s hearts and minds looking for the worst of them, meant that he missed very few opportunities to do so.

He wasn’t a popular man, my father.

My mother suffered greatly from his obsessions, poor woman. Everything she said was questioned and plumbed for hidden meanings, every action spied on.  She had no privacy, no escape from my father’s endless quest for truth.  I believe that if he could have done so, he would have reached into her mind and drawn out her very thoughts to be dissected.

He was a piece of work, was my father.

Anyway, I was hardly more than a sunflower seed planted in my mother’s womb before my father became obsessed with me, too – or with the idea of me. In a world where nobody could be trusted to tell him the truth, he declared that his daughter would be, both by nature and by training, a paragon of sincerity – the only honest woman ever born. Nothing less than utter transparency would suffice him.

I see you understand where this is going.

My father hired soothsayers to predict my future, even though he refused to believe any of their predictions. He had priests pray over my mother. He even hired a team of sorcerers to oversee my mother’s pregnancy.  Their methods were various, but their goals were one – to procure the birth of a child who could never lie or conceal the truth.

I don’t know whose prayers or spells worked. Perhaps all of them did.  It hardly matters.  They all died young, those sorcerers and soothsayers and priests. Died of terrible, sudden illnesses that no doctor in France could cure. But I was born as you see me.

As you see all of me.

I apologise for my state of undress. It’s part of the curse. Any clothes I wear become transparent the moment I put them on, so that I may not conceal anything in any way. That’s one reason I prefer to live under the water – it’s the closest thing to a garment that I have.

My mother died as I was born, which was, I think, a mercy. She never knew that she had given birth to an infant whose skin was as transparent as water, and whose internal workings were all displayed to the world’s view. I’m told that many of the witnesses at my birth fainted at their first sight of me, my blood pumping like molten rubies through my veins, my organs translucent, my muscles expanding and contracting like glass heated and worked by a glassblower, barely hiding the bones, as solid and clear as glacier ice, which gave my body structure and form.

I’ve always thought that I was rather beautiful, in my own way.

They locked me up immediately, of course. My father couldn’t bear the sight of me, and nor could his court – and the nurses he had hired resigned from their jobs at their first glimpse of the white skull that grinned at them, toothy and macabre, through my transparent face. But I was lucky. My mother had had a waiting woman, Anne, who had long desired a child,  She had been struck blind by scarlet fever a few years previously, and I felt like a normal baby to her. My monstrous appearance meant nothing to Anne – she loved me from the moment they first laid me in her arms, all soft and noisy and needy, and I loved her as the mother she was to me. She claimed me as her own, and even found a wet-nurse who was poor enough to nurse a monster for a sufficient fee.

I see you understand that part. My nurse grew to love me, you know. They say that money can’t buy love, but it’s amazing what enough of it will do, if the recipient is sufficiently desperate. And I like to think that I was not completely unlovable, at least as a child.

Anne raised me like a daughter, and taught me all the things that I would have needed to know, had I been allowed out of my apartments. My father was generous with money, so long as he did not have to see me, and so I was tutored in mathematics and music and astronomy, in philosophy and languages, and in politics and the courtly graces, as well as the womanly arts of needlework and dancing.  The latter, I learned from a former master who had lost his sight in an accident, and I learned well, though I always had to lead. My other tutors taught me from behind a screen, to protect my modesty and their sanity, and I excelled particularly in the mathematical and natural science subjects, where my instinct for truth served me well.

When I was eight, my father married again. As a gift on the occasion of his wedding, he built me this castle, which he called Ys. I apologise for the lack of amenities, by the way. It is difficult to make an underwater apartment luxurious, but I have become accustomed to it.

And you will not be here for long, of course.

Yes, my father the King built me a castle, below sea level, with a wall to keep out the sea, and a door in that wall, to which he had the only key.

I see you understand the subtext.

My so-truthful father told his court that he had built the castle here because I so loved the sea – and indeed, I did grow to love it well – but the key and the door told another story. Why would you make a door in a wall if you did not intend to open it?

Anne and I knew that we lived here on sufferance. We prayed that the Queen would remain barren – we would not, we were certain, be permitted to survive the birth of another heir. And we were not without compassion for the new Queen in our prayers, either. Anne always believed that my father’s interference in my mother’s pregnancy had weakened her to the point where she could not survive my birth, and I felt that marriage to my father had probably made her death seem a welcome escape from his surveillance.

No, it wasn’t the Queen’s early death we prayed for.

As a precaution against the worst, Anne and I both learned to swim, and swim well. And I learned, too, that underwater, I could be at home. Drifting with the tides among the ghost shrimp, the glass squid and the icefish, I felt that I belonged. In this realm, my beauty was both real and unremarkable.  I had never been happier.

Oh yes, I’ll be staying here. You needn’t fear any interference from me after the deed is done.

Anne died when I was seventeen, and I mourned her sincerely.

My father’s mourning was equally sincere, because with Anne gone, he had no idea what to do with me.

His first thought was to send me as an ambassador to Sequana’s kingdom, deep under the river that once bore her name. I think by this stage he believed his own lies about my love of the sea. Which, in a sense, made those lies the truth, at least from his perspective…

Yes, indeed, Sequana is real, and you will need to come to an understanding with her. In many ways, she is the true ruler of Paris, and she can make your life extremely difficult if you offend her.

And, listen; my father is the King of Brittany, and that is our priority at this point, but you should certainly consider expanding into Normandy and south towards Paris at a later date. I can promise you, your neighbours will be looking at our borders just as greedily. And if you decide to do that, remember that Sequana has alliances with the other rivers, and she will be friendly with you for my sake.

We got on rather well, Sequana and I, but to tell the truth, I was not a great success as an ambassador. For all my father’s ideas about truthfulness, the fact is that ambassadors lie all the time. Not necessarily big lies, but half truths, and little tactful smoothings-over. And I could not lie, not ever. Not even to be polite.

Oh good, you can laugh. I was beginning to wonder. But yes, it was amusing, in its way. As well send me to be a spy.

Yes, quite. There is a lot of overlap, and I’m glad you can see that without being prompted. You’re going to do well at this, you know.

Anyway. My time with Sequana was of great benefit to Sequana but did very little good to my father’s kingdom, and so after a year or two, I was summoned back to Ys. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, it took longer than anyone expected for me to get home – and when I arrived here, it was as you see it.


Another good question. Yes, there had been servants. There was an entire town, in fact, with churches and shops and market gardens and even a few small farms within the walls – we were quite self-sufficient. I don’t know if my father warned the villagers before he flooded the town, but I am almost certain that he did not. Add it to his account.

My father put it about that I had been entertaining devils and having orgies and killing my lovers in the morning. He said that he had tried to make me see the error of my ways, but that I had stolen the key to the sea wall and drowned both castle and town, and that he alone had escaped. He had tried, he said, to rescue me even then, but Saint Winwaloe had appeared to him – yes, an actual saint had appeared to him – and told him to drop me in the ocean, so what could he do?

Yes, I know.

But then, being so truthful, he hadn’t had much practice at making up lies.  He was never going to hit on a convincing one on his first try.

Well, perhaps it was not his first try.

Anyway, once I read that particular broadsheet, I realised I’d best make myself scarce. I knew that Sequana didn’t need to please my father, and that she would take me in if I returned, but I also knew that I could not travel in daylight and on land without being seen. I therefore resolved to make my way to her kingdom underwater, swimming from my drowned city on the coast of Brittany to her realm in the heart of France. By day, I would sleep in a sea cave, or among the gorse – or even creep into a haystack, if I had no better choice – and by night, I would swim along the coast towards the mouth of the Seine. From there, it would simply be a matter of swimming upstream until I found Sequana.

No, I wasn’t thinking about revenge at that point. I really just wanted sanctuary. I would never be safe in Brittany, as you have cause to know.  And I knew I needed allies. My townspeople in Ys had become accustomed to me, and had, I think, a limited sort of loyalty to me. Certainly, I had ruled them as fairly as I knew how, and I think they appreciated that. But they were gone now, and I had no idea where I would find other friends.

But the sea, which had welcomed me so kindly before, proved my helper again. On my eighth night of swimming, as I approached Honfleur, a storm blew up. I swam easily to shore, but no sooner had I reached the beach than I heard cries in the distance. A small ship, already struggling to stay abreast of the waves, had been struck by lightning, and the sails had caught fire. As I watched, three men leapt into the water, and attempted to strike out for shore – but the currents were strong, and the waves were high, and they could not hope to make it.

I knew what to do.

The men recoiled when they first saw me appear out of the water in front of them, a monstrous mermaid in the midst of the storm, but it’s amazing what a fear of imminent death will do for people’s perceptions.

Yes, you know that already, I think.

There was plenty of wreckage floating around them; I lashed each man to something that would float, and towed them back to shore, one by one. The first man had disappeared by the time I finished rescuing his friends, but the other two, Luc and Damien, were grateful to me, and they stayed.

Damien was fascinated by me – I later learned that he was on his way to the Sorbonne to study medicine and surgery. I, of course, was the perfect anatomical model, and he was charmingly distracted by the sight of my blood circulating through my veins and capillaries. It was the first time I ever met a man who delighted in looking at me, and while I knew that there was nothing romantic about his gaze, I cherished the experience nonetheless. He seemed certain that I would be hailed with equal joy by the professors at the University, but I was more doubtful.

Luc was no medical student, but he was gentleman enough to hide his revulsion, and to his credit, I believe he quickly forgot to think about what I looked like in his passion for arguing with me about philosophy and ethics.

Ah, you know Luc? Yes, I see that you do. There’s no need to blush, my dear. You could do a lot worse.

What do I think about philosophy and ethics? I think they are lovely if you can afford them. Which you certainly can’t, and neither can I. But it’s very useful when other people have them, so I do recommend learning to argue about them if you can. Generally, I find that flinging around the phrase ‘act utilitarian’ often enough will throw everyone into such a state of agitation that you don’t have to express a lot of other opinions. You would like act utilitarianism, I think. The greatest good for the greatest number, and no other rules apply. That’s why you came here, is it not?

Anyway, rescuing Luc and Damien was a great stroke of fortune for me. The three of us travelled up the Seine together – I swam, and they walked, and at the end of the day, the three of us would meet and discuss our situation. Having been shipwrecked, the young men had little money, but I was able to help with that – you’d be amazed at the things that get dropped into the river, one way or another – and the young men helped me in their turn by spreading stories of the glass princess who had rescued them from the wreck of their ship.

You know how these things go – before a month had passed, the story was all over France, and young men from Marseilles to Dunkirk were boasting of the beautiful mermaid princess who had rescued them from drowning.

My father must have been tearing his hair out. All that effort to blacken my name, and suddenly, I was a folk hero. My story joined forces with the story my father had told, and suddenly, rescuing sailors was the penance for my sins – the ones that had drowned Ys. We rolled our eyes, and added our own twist to the story – when my penance was served, it was said, I would return, triumphant, to Quimper, to rule Brittany as its Queen.

My father didn’t like that at all.

What was that?

Ah, I see. No, the curse has not been lifted. I cannot lie, nor can I conceal the truth. But nobody ever said that I could not pay others to lie or conceal the truth – and as I said, there is quite a bit of treasure to be found at the bottom of rivers.

I did, in fact, rescue a few more people over the years. There are a lot of rivers in Brittany, and people are always falling into them. And I’m a strong swimmer – it’s easy enough to pull them out. And it’s amazing how a near death experience can change a person’s ideas about what is monstrous.

Of course, I had to stay in hiding. My father’s great honesty expressed itself in an honest desire to see me dead, and he wasn’t lacking in money, either.  But by now, I had begun to protect myself.  I had new, powerful alliances, as befits a princess who is plotting revolution.

First and foremost was my alliance with Sequana, of course. She gave me and my servants the gills which allow us to live in our drowned castle, and the power to speak so that you can hear me, even underwater. She will give you these gifts too, if I ask them of her.

But of equal importance were my alliances above the water, and for these, I had Damien to thank. You have heard, I am sure, that the current generation of doctors and surgeons who come from the Sorbonne have an excellent reputation?

I am the reason for that reputation.

I know that sounds immodest, but it is true. It is impossible to practice medicine without understanding how the human body works, and the Church takes a dim view of letting students cut up the dead to look inside.

Really, you cannot afford to be squeamish if you want this job.

Thank you, but I don’t need an apology – I need to know that you can do this without flinching.

Fair enough.

In any case, I’m sure you’ve heard of the lengths some students and universities have gone to in order to get their hands on dead bodies. Well, at the Sorbonne, they didn’t need to. They had me, as a living model. And while they could not cut into me, they had the advantage of seeing organs and systems at work in a living being.

Yes, they did still need some corpses, but far fewer.

We had to keep my work secret, of course. And it was frustrating at times. Damien and his friends were among the first to properly understand pulmonary circulation – by observation, naturally – but in order to write about it, they had to reason backwards to explain how they could have made this discovery in a more conventional manner, and before they could do that, a young physician from Damascus managed to deduce through dissections and logic what they had observed through my translucent skin.

I will say, Ibn al-Nafis deserves all the credit he has received for his discovery. To comprehend the flow of blood from the heart to the lungs through the pulmonary artery without the benefit of direct observation is an impressive feat. But I can’t say my friends were happy when they found out that they were not the first to describe the phenomenon…

I am sorry to bore you. I would have thought that the ways in which oxygen is transported through the body would have been of interest to you, particularly given your current situation.

Suffice it to say that I have a very good relationship with the physicians and the surgeons who qualified through the Sorbonne. I think I’ve helped train three quarters of the doctors in this country.

And we have the people on our side.

And anyone who has ever nearly drowned, apparently.

So here’s the deal.

In three weeks time, it will be exactly seven years since Ys was drowned.

And you will become Queen.

Don’t look at me like that. I’m not suggesting you marry my father – God forbid. No, you are going to become me. Queen Dahut.

It won’t matter that they don’t recognise you. They wouldn’t recognise me, either, if I suddenly appeared before them with skin that hid my organs.  But you – I! – will have made a miraculous recovery, and now that the King is dead, you are ready to rule as Queen.

I have no idea what that gesture is supposed to mean.

Ah. Well, no, he isn’t dead yet. But he is about to contract a sudden, fatal illness. It’s going to be very painful and very unsightly, and rather humiliating, and no doctor in France will be able to cure it.

I really have an excellent relationship with the physicians of the Sorbonne.

And then my little half-brother is going to have an accident. That will be your opportunity.

You’re having scruples now?

Act utilitarianism, remember? The greatest good for the greatest number. My father is a terrible King, and my brother is far too young to rule anyone usefully. You will do a much better job.

Anyway, we aren’t going to kill little Louis. We’re going to save him! Well, for now, anyway. Afterward, it will be up to you.

Yes, poor little Louis will fall into the Seine – but we won’t let him drown, you and I. I’ll wait under the water for him to fall, and when I have brought him nearly to the surface I will pass him to you, and you will raise him up out of the water – the glass princess of Ys, redeemed by her good works and restored to health and beauty by God’s mercy.

It’s a lovely story, isn’t it? The people will adore it, and you, and that’s half the battle.

I can’t lie, but you can.  You lie rather well, in fact. And you look just the way a princess ought to look – so pretty, with those big, dark eyes and all that honey-coloured hair.  And you are intelligent and tenacious, and ingenious, too.

I’m quite pleased with you, actually. None of my father’s other assassins have made it this far.

Then again, none of my father’s other assassins had so much potential to be useful to me.

Do stop fiddling with that umbilical, dear. Damien will see that you have quite as much air as you need.


This is a very good deal for you.

I will teach you everything you need to know.

I won’t try to rule through you.

I won’t try to blackmail you.

I will be no trouble at all.

There are only three things that I want.  Three small, easy things.

I want my people avenged. I want safety for my allies. And I want to live out my life in peace.

That’s not so much to ask, is it?

Well, and you will owe me a favour. Just a small one. Nothing you need to worry about now.

What do you think, Mélusine?

Do you want to be Queen?

Take a deep breath, and consider it. Think about how it would feel. About the things you could do. About the power you would have, and the wealth, and the influence.

Breathe out now. And in, and out again.

All the air you need.

(It will only be a tiny thing. A little, little favour. Like the favour I am doing for you, right now.)

Breathe from the diaphragm. You can take in more oxygen that way. From the air to your lungs to your blood, which will flow to your heart via the pulmonary vein and then be pumped around your body, keeping you alive, breath by breath.  Pulmonary circulation.  It’s a beautiful thing, don’t you think?

That’s right. Long, deep breaths. And for goodness’ sake, put that knife away.

We both know you won’t have time to use it.

Don’t you want to be Queen?


Castles, Water and the Drowned City of Ys

Château d’Eau is one of the older stations in the Métro system, having opened in 1908.  It is situated in the 10th arondissement, and is named for the Place de Château d’Eau, which in turn was named for a fountain that served as a water tower.  This is far less romantic than a ‘castle of water’, which is how I would normally translate château d’eau.

Château d’Eau station was actually the inspiration for this entire project – I saw the station name from the window of my train as I was leaving Paris a couple of years ago, and was immediately struck with the idea of writing stories for all the Métro stations.  I actually started writing about a Princess with skin as clear as water while I was still on that train, but the story refused to go anywhere.

As for this story, some sources like to claim that Paris was named Par-Ys – meaning ‘like Ys’, because it was very nearly as beautiful as Ys.  The same stories claim that when Paris eventually sinks into the Seine, Ys will rise again.  Incidentally, I did not set out deliberately to subvert the tale of Drowned Ys.  I read a lot of myths and legends as a child, and the story of Ys stayed with me, perhaps because one of my oldest recurring nightmares was of the sea coming in and in and not stopping until we were all drowned.  Anyway, for whatever reason, I remembered Dahut as being the heroine of the story, and was extremely surprised, when I went to look up the story a few days ago, to discover that whether the story is set in Brittany or in Cornwall, and whether it is a fairy tale or an opera, Dahut is always, always the villain.  Oops…

If you would like to read a more conventional version of the story of Ys, you can find one here, in English or in French.

(And I just discovered, while searching for a complete version of the story, that some versions of the tale claim that the women of Ys were transparent.  There really is no such thing as an original idea when one is dealing with myths and fairy-tales…)

Sequana is the old name of the river Seine, and was also the ancient goddess of the Seine.  The Mélusine in the story probably isn’t this Mélusine, mostly because this story is set (very loosely) in the 13th century, because of the Sorbonne, and the mythical Mélusine needs to be 12th century or earlier.  Still, one good water spirit deserves another, and she is from Normandy, and definitely magical, so maybe she travelled in time a little, too.

Ibn al-Nafis really did discover circulation in the 13th century.  I wanted to find a plausible anatomical discovery by a Frenchman, but frankly, Damascus was where it was at, science-wise, in the middle ages.  The great French scientists and physicians all came much later.  I couldn’t steal a man’s discovery from him, so I fell back on the old academic chestnut of the rival who publishes first.

I couldn’t find an illustration of a suitably terrifying mermaid or siren that was in the public domain, nor could I find a drowned castle, so the illustration is a combination of two photos I found on Wikipedia, one of Castle Hohenzollern, and one of a school of monodactuylus argenteus fish, combined, and then edited and filtered to give them a suitably underwater look.  But if you’d like to look at some real-life drowned cities, I recommend this rather gorgeous collection of photos from Urban Ghosts Media.


fleur4left Château d’Eau
fleur4right Gare de l’Est


2 thoughts on “Château d’Eau

    1. Catherine Post author

      Thank you so much! This has been one of my favourites to write so far.

      (also, apologies for the delay in approving this comment – I’ve just discovered that comments are not coming through to my email.)


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