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Copyright © 2018 by Chantal Gadoury
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Published by The Parliament House
Edited by J.D. Castleberry
Lena & Soren Artwork by Aislinn Honeycutt
Line editing by David Rochelero
Created with Vellum
The book is dedicated to Reggie, who gave a mermaid a second chance to love and the happily-ever-after she dreamed of.
And to all the dreamers of the world. This book is for you.
About the Author
The Adventure Continues…
The Parliament House
Javelin’s voice echoed through the currents of the Skagerrak Sea, startling Lena where she sat perched upon a mound of rocks, humming to herself.
She tilted her chin, careful not to disturb the large, colorful starfish grazing her fingertips. She narrowed her eyes on a blur in the distance—her older brother bursting through a school of speckled wrasses.
She’d expected him to return from the market hours ago. Even from afar, she could see his striking blue eyes and sandy-blonde hair. His arms were textured with powerful muscles, his skin flawless and pale. His gleaming silver tail launched him forward, muscles coiling like rope beneath his crescent-shaped scales.
“Lena! I had good luck scavenging!” he called. “I was the hit of the market!”
Lena combed a hand through her long, brown hair. The wayward strands reflected particles of gold and red in the sparkling water. She remembered the last time Javelin had announced a good day of trade. He’d found a newly sunken ship just beyond the coral walls, filled with strange rocks that glittered from the deep recesses of wooden barrels. That discovery had resulted in offers from nearly every vendor in the square.
“What did you find?” she called back, doing her best to conceal her curiosity even as her body straightened with excitement.
Javelin thrust his hand forward as he came to rest upon the rock beside her. With a grin, he uncurled his scaled fingers to reveal a shimmering pink shell on a chain made of delicate white kelp.
“It’s beautiful!” Lena exclaimed as he pressed it into her palm. She admired how perfectly it fit in her hand, and just how unique the color was compared to the troves of shells they’d collected over the years.
Javelin had a knack for scavenging and bartering. He’d made a name for himself in the market, selling the best trinkets to the highest bidders, while Lena spent her days hunting small crabs and unaware fish.
“I thought of you when I saw it,” he said, clearly amused by her balking. “Couldn’t bring myself to sell it.” He nudged her playfully with his shoulder, his blue eyes scanning the small bushel of crab in her lap. “Have you had much luck this morning?”
“Not nearly as much as I’d hoped,” Lena admitted, and bit her bottom lip. “What took you so long?”
Javelin picked up one of the crabs she’d collected and cracked the outer shell with a nearby rock. “Other than trying to make better trades than last time, I had a few admirers stop me.”
“Again?” Lena rolled her eyes. Merrow women were always fluttering their lashes at Javelin, flipping their hair and flicking their tails, hoping to catch his attention.
“They’ll move on eventually,” Javelin shrugged. “They always do.” With nimble fingers, he twisted the crab legs and tugged the meat free between his teeth.
Lena plucked one of the dangling legs from his palm. She twisted the shell between her fingers, releasing the tender flesh underneath. The crab meat was juicy, rich and full of salty flavor. Her stomach rumbled as it dissolved on her tongue. She swallowed and tore off another bite.
“It seems you’ve become an expert in the hunt,” Javelin grinned, licking his fingers and reaching after her catch. Lena swatted his hand away and began to push the small heap of crabs into a nearby sack.
“Save them for later, Javelin,” she sighed. “I want to show father. . .”
“There’s plenty,” he chuckled, rolling his eyes. “I did well in the market, so it seems we’ll both have good news to bring him.”
Lena pushed herself up from the rock and hovered over a small hole she had seemingly missed; another crab’s home. With quick fingers, she reached inside and grabbed for the creature, careful to avoid its large claws. She slid her small hunting knife into the crab’s belly and pushed it into the sack with the others.
“You’re getting better and better Lena.”
“You think so?” she said as she dropped her knife into the sack.
Javelin nodded. His eyes scanned the ocean floor quickly, then darted back to hers. A devilish grin twitched at the corner of his mouth.
“Race you back!” he winked and began to swim away before she could react.
“Aren’t we getting a little old for racing?” Lena shouted, shoving the sack’s handles over her shoulder. After all, she’d celebrated her eighteenth birthday a fortnight ago. A giggle tickled her throat as she scurried after him, her choppy breaths sending bubbles floating up, up, up toward a bright, sprawling light overhead—the sun.
Lena turned her violet gaze toward the surface. Envy and wonder swirled in her veins at the idea of basking in that warm, iridescent glow. In the early days of her childhood, before the death of the queen, merrows had breached the crested waves and gazed upon the human world from afar. Now, surfacing was strictly forbidden. Poseidon’s wrath awaited any merrows brave or foolish enough to disobey the king’s decree. The idea sent a shudder down her back, even as longing bloomed in her chest.
With a start, she realized she’d begun to swim skyward. She leveled her gaze on Javelin and pushed harder against the current, catching up with him at last.
“Took you long enough, little minnow,” Javelin smirked.
Lena narrowed her eyes. “I’m not a minnow,” she replied, wrinkling her nose at the pet name.
Javelin tilted his head back to laugh, slowing his pace. Lena tried to steady her heaving breaths as she found a comfortable rhythm beside him.
“What do you think it’s like up there?” she asked as her eyes darted back through the water. The glittering rays of the sun captivated her, only fueling her curiosity.
“We’ve talked about this so many times, Lena,” Javelin replied. “How many more times do we need to go over the rules put in place?”
“At least once more,” she begged. “Truly, what do you think it’s like?”
“I’ve already told you what I think, over and over and over again.”
“Tell me again,” she said softly, a playful smile bowing her lips.
Javelin raised an eyebrow at her. “Perhaps later.” He mussed her hair, sending her bucking out of arm’s length.
Ahead, their home came into view, darkened by the shadow of a nearby shipwreck. The weathered stone was a far cry from the sleek huts and shell-paved pavilions of Lena’s youth. After her mother’s untimely death, her father, Carrick, had moved the family into a deserted cavern near the small village of Sogen Hav, leagues from the capital city of Skagerrak.
He hovered now just beyond the threshold, awaiting their return. Age had stripped the sight from his eyes and whitened his hair. His faded, vermilion tail—once brightly red—swayed beneath him, matching the gentle current.
“Father will be happy to see these,” Javelin murmured, tapping Lena’s sack.
“What will I be happy to see?” Carrick bellowed as they slowed the rhythm of their swim. His unseeing, gray eyes darted blankly between them. His gnarled hand reached forward, searching for the familiar shape of his vanished children.
“I had quite a lucky morning, father,” Lena chirped, massaging her catch of crabs so the shells clacked together.
Carrick chuckled. “That you did, min pige.” My girl. “It seems you have your mother’s talent.”
Lena smiled, a painful curiosity rising in her throat. She had so many questions about her mother’s death, but they always went unanswered. She glanced at Javelin, who shook his head.
“And you, Javelin?” Carrick’s gray gaze moved slowly, as if he were searching for his eldest child in the dark.
“I had quite a bit of luck as well,” Javelin smirked, and dropped his sack into his father’s hand.
Carrick shook out a few perfectly shaped pearls and two large ash-white sand dollars. His fingers paused on a smooth, round shard of obsidian. With a thumb, he traced its outer edge, inspecting the size.
“It’s lovely,” Lena murmured, mesmerized by the slick black glass. Obsidian was prized in the Skagerrak Sea, chiseled from the shark-infested coves near the underwater fire pits. Only the bravest merrows dared to retrieve it, and this shard was substantial. Javelin rarely brought home such a payment.
“You did well, my boy,” Carrick nodded. “The pearls will be easy to trade again if we need to.”
He slid the treasures back into Javelin’s satchel and tucked it away.
Lena clutched her hands in front of her navel. Her efforts paled in comparison to Javelin’s success. Her father shifted toward her, as if sensing her dampened spirits. He reached forward, his gentle fingers finding her shoulder first, then her cheek.
“Come, min pige.” He tilted his head toward the cavern as his hand trailed carefully over the wall, seeking guidance. “You’ve collected us a feast, and I look forward to enjoying it.”
Evening poured over the ocean like an octopus’s ink. Fish slipped between tall, swaying blades of grass or concealed themselves in the hollows of coral. Crabs burrowed beneath the sand, safe from Lena’s swift hand for another night. All was quiet and peaceful as a shadowy calm infused the sea.
Carrick had long since gone to bed, but Lena and Javelin remained awake, tucked into a hidden alcove of the cavern—their grotto. It was a natural dome of echoing stone, where the best of their scavenged treasures were stored. Much of what they found in shipwrecks was forbidden or scandalized at the market, human artifacts that couldn’t be refabricated to suit merrow needs. Whatever they couldn’t bear to abandon, they kept here.
This was their special, secret place. Anyone might have entered it, unbidden, through a slim hole rung by moss and carved into the ceiling. But the cavern was so remote. There were no neighbors passing curiously by, no children wandering too far from home who might happen upon the grotto by mistake. At this time of night, its only spies were sea life. Broad-shelled turtles peeked in as they ascended to the surface to sleep. Eels twined together, massaging their slippery skin on the moss. Occasionally, a shark drifted by, gliding slowly through the relaxed current in a slumberous, mesmerized state. Otherwise, the grotto went unseen.
Lena pulled her aquamarine tail closer to her chest and wrapped her arms around it, listening attentively as Javelin recited the last lines of a familiar merrow story—a favorite of children in the capital city.
She wasn’t in the mood for safe stories tonight. Talk of humans was discouraged throughout the Skagerrak Sea, but here, they could tell whatever tales they liked, imagine whatever they wished, dream their most precious, forbidden dreams.
“Tell me the legend of the Skagerrak queen.”
Javelin lifted a brow. “It’s hardly a legend, Lena,” he said. “It’s barely been a decade.” His voice was easy, unbothered by the possibility of being overheard. They were alone in this place. There was no need to whisper or scold or shush. Still, he groaned. “I’ve told that one a thousand times. You should know it by heart. Aren’t you tired of it yet?”
“Come on,” Lena urged him. “It’s my favorite. Tell me again.”
He rolled his eyes, but his mouth curved into a grin. “Fine.” His scooped a clam shell out of the sand and began sliding the sharp side of a rock against its grain. “The queen fell in love with a human man,” he began, his strong fingers holding the clam firmly in place. “Every full moon, she used her magic to travel ashore to see him.”
Lena settled onto her elbows, relishing the smooth sound of her brother’s voice as he recited the tale. A dreamy smile spread over her lips.
“I wonder how she met him,” she murmured softly, tilting her chin up and letting her lashes flutter shut.
“Likely the same way any merrow meets a human,” Javelin teased. “Shipwrecked during one of Poseidon’s storms. She should have drowned him immediately.”
“But she couldn’t!” Lena’s eyes pinged open. “For he was devilishly handsome, even soaking wet. The most handsome man she’d ever seen.”
“Devilish is right,” Javelin allowed. “Whether he was handsome or not, I’ll let your imagination decide.”
“Oh, he was.” Lena was smiling widely now. “He was, perhaps, the most beautiful human man in existence, and desperately enraptured by the queen. Each full moon, he waited for her, pacing the beach like a madman. And when she would emerge from the sea, he’d run hip-deep to meet her, unable to spend one more moment apart. He’d wrap his muscular arms around her—”
“For Poseidon’s sake, Lena.”
“And they’d dance together,” she pressed on, giggling, “as only humans can do. They’d dance and dance the hours away, bathed in starlight, humming songs into one another’s ears.”
“Until one night. . .” Javelin prompted smugly, and Lena rolled her eyes.
“Until one night,” she sighed, “something overcame the queen’s lover. Greed.”
“Human greed,” Javelin corrected. “Human nature. It was only a matter of time.”
She glared at him, but didn’t interrupt as he continued. This was the best and the worst part of the tale, and Javelin—damn him, was good at telling it. And he knew.
“That night, the queen swam toward the surface, impatient as ever she was. Ready to be rid of her tail. Ready to be human again. Her magic was a gift from Poseidon himself, contained in a delicate shell which she wore around her neck on a gold chain. It gave her the ability to explore the shore, and to control the storms and seas.”
Lena leaned in.
“As she swam, the queen began to change. Faint sobs faltered over her blue-scaled lips—cries of pain, lost to the rushing lull of the waves and the urgent beating of her fins. Swiftly, her tail separated into two perfectly shaped legs, and she rose out of the sea.”
“Don’t leave out the good parts,” Lena whispered. She knew her brother would skim over the romance just to annoy her.
Javelin gave her a pointed look. Then he grinned. “The moon was high that night,” he said, lowering his voice to a hush for effect. “The land was illuminated by an eerie, silver glow. Beneath its light, the queen’s new flesh was creamy and soft. Her hair became one with the wind, and her body shivered against a violent, uproarious breeze. Perhaps it was a warning from the gods, but the queen didn’t see it as such. The human lands were cold, suffering a new, frigid season, but her heart remained warm. She smiled, though her transition had been agony, when she heard the sound of water splashing andsaw her beloved moving toward her through the shallows.
“She sang his name as he brushed chaste kisses against her neck, and relaxed fully against him, trusting him completely. She was blind to the wicked yearning which had wrapped around his heart. Which made his body tense, which crushed his lungs till he could hardly breathe. He wanted her shell, for he’d discovered what powers were locked inside that delicate charm. Powers gifted to whomsoever possessed it. His fingers dipped to her throat, caressing the shell which had allowed her to return to him, again and again. The queen eyed him strangely, and he dropped his hands to her waist, tugging her against him, kissing her deeply.”
Lena sighed, and Javelin smirked.
“She was a fool,” he said.
“She was in love,” Lena amended.
“She was both,” he conceded. “And that foolish love consumed her. Deceived her. Seduced her. Clouded her eyes, so love was all she could see. But that fateful eve, her beloved’s affection was not what it seemed. He’d seduced himself too, with all the prospects of what might be. His own love had been replaced by a lust for riches unknown. For control of the land and sea.”
Lena winced, for she knew what came next.
“He pressed his mouth against the queen’s skin, whispering sweet words, distracting her. She was smiling as he sent a knife into her back. Smiling, even as her eyes went wide with shock.”
Lena shuddered, picturing it. A joyful mouth, frozen in place. Bulging, horrified eyes going dim.
“The queen’s lover twisted his blade, releasing her cold merrow blood to the sand. He reached for the shell, yanking on its golden chain. But in the last throes of breath, the queen resisted him and threw the shell into the crashing waves, bidding Poseidon to wash it away.
“With a promised curse on his lips, her lover trailed back into the night, determined to one day possess the world between the sea and stars, and all who dwell beneath the earth, in the ocean’s depths. Our people.” He glanced sidelong at Lena, his meaning clear. “The merrows.”
“And the queen. . .” Lena murmured, though she already knew how the tale would end.
“He left her to dissolve into sea foam. She was washed away forever by the waves.”
Lena released a long breath and gazed at her hands, trying to imagine what it would be like to watch herself slowly disappear; what heartache and betrayal the queen must have felt in her last moments. She knew this was a gruesome tale, but a part of her thought the better parts, the magic and romance, were worth the gruesome bits.
“What do you think it would be like, to walk?” she wondered aloud. “Would it be like having two tails?”
“I don’t know,” Javelin chuckled. “I suppose it might be.”
“Where do you think the shell is now?”
Javelin shrugged. From a stony shelf above his head, he retrieved a slim, wooden railing he’d found in a ship a few days before and carefully tied his sharpened clamshell to its jagged end.
Lena smiled, realizing he’d made her a hunting spear.
“Poseidon is said to have hidden the shell before the human lover, or any human, could steal it. It could be anywhere.”
“If you could go to the surface, would you?”
Javelin pinched his lips together and didn’t speak. It was a silent reprimand. He knew how Lena longed to break through the waves, to see the human world with her own eyes, to know the uses of all the odd objects they’d collected over the years. But the laws of the sea were strict, and the king’s leniency had all but vanished in recent years.
Any merrow caught peeking at the shore was punished. Some were even struck down by Poseidon and reduced to sea foam, just like the queen.
“This is where we belong, Lena,” Javelin said softly, firmly.
“But how do you know?” She swirled upright and swam along the edge of the grotto, brushing her fingertips over cups and spoons and heaps of sodden fabric. Over small chests and tarnished, palm-sized figurines and other mysterious, unnamed things. “Haven’t you ever wondered what it would be like, to live on the land? To live among them? To be one of them?”
“Not as much as you have, I can see.”
She groaned, and sank to her brother’s side, resting her head on his shoulder. “It can’t be as bad as everyone believes. Humans can’t all be the same. We’re not all the same,” she reasoned quietly.
She curled her fingers around the shell at her neck. For all his scolding, she knew why Javelin had gifted it to her—because he’d known it would remind her of her favorite story; of the queen. “Where did you find this?” she asked, breaking the silence that stretched uncomfortably between them.
“I went toward shallower waters today,” Javelin answered, and she stared at him, shock and envy warring in her gaze. Since the queen’s death, few traveled out of the deep. Too many merrows were worried of being caught in a riptide, of unwittingly exiting the Skagerrak Sea.
Javelin ignored her look. “There was an old chest mounted just on the edge of a deep canyon. I almost didn’t notice it. It was so overgrown by coral and seaweed. Inside, I found a few odds and ends that I ended up selling, and this.” He thumped the charm at her neck. “I’m sure I could have traded it for something small. Poseidon knows there’s always something we need. But I thought of you.”
Guilt slipped into Lena’s heart. “Perhaps… perhaps we should sell it,” she forced herself to say. Javelin shook his head, and she couldn’t help but feel relieved.
“You’re a young woman, Lena, and you’re of age. You should be covered from head to tail in pretty things.”
“So I can entice a man and be married off?” she teased. “So you’ll no longer have to worry about feeding me?”
“You’re the one who feeds us most days,” Javelin replied. He passed the spear into her hands. “Father and I would have gone hungry more than once if not for your hunting prowess. But you shouldn’t have to hunt, shouldn’t have to worry that we’ll starve. You deserve to feel safe, content, taken care of. You deserve to simply. . . be.”
Lena wasn’t sure she wanted to be content. It sounded an awful lot like being bored to death, the way Javelin described it.
She didn’t say so. Just curled her lips into a playful smile and bumped her shoulder against his. “Good luck to the man who tries to take a spear like this from me,” she winked.
She swished the spear back and forth in front of her chest, testing its durability. Then she moved into a sitting position, hunched over as if she were about to stab an unaware crab. With a sure arm, she plunged the spear into the sand, then yanked back, pleased by how light and swift it was.
“It’s perfect,” she affirmed, already thinking of the deep, narrow crevasses where the larger, meatier crabs were hard to reach.
Javelin’s eyes glowed against the increasing darkness. In spite of his talk of Lena trading her hunting skills in for a husband, he was clearly pleased.
“Let’s get some rest.” He straightened and glided toward the darkened passageway which led back into the cavern. “It’s been a long day for both of us.”
He swam ahead of her, his broad body weaving through the water effortlessly, and paused beside the arched entrance to her room. “Rest well, sister.”
Lena pressed a kiss to his cheek.
Javelin disappeared into his wing of the cavern, andLena dipped into the area she’d claimed for herself. It was spacious. Compared to the grotto, it was. . . empty. Gaps in the walls beckoned watery panels of moonlight to glisten upon the floor and welcomed the gentle music of the mostly sleeping sea.
She swirled onto her back and hovered just above the jutting stone that served as her bed. She lifted the pink conch in front of her eyes, considering it carefully. What if it was more than just a pretty piece of jewelry? What if it contained Poseidon’s magic?
A silly thought. She giggled. Still, somewhere in the ceaseless, ever-deepening sea, the queen’s lost shell was hidden. Why not in a camouflaged chest dangerously close to the shallows?
She grinned to herself, and strapped her arms across her stomach, imagining that she was the queen. That a handsome lover had wrapped her tight in his embrace. A human lover, reckless and helplessly enamored; his body dyed by the sun and his heart free of deceit. She could almost hear him whispering into her ear, promising to take her further inland. Promising to show her the world above. Promising her a gloriously endless everything.
That night, she dreamed of the shore.
Of the moonlight glowing upon her face.
Of warm fingers skimming her skin.
Of peering down at herself and discovering feet where there should have been only fins.
Lena darted her newly crafted spear into the sandy ocean floor, startling a brightly colored crab, which scuttled from its hiding place beneath a layer of rock and sand.
She chucked the spear again, sending the creature scampering into a stony crevasse as quickly as its claws could muster.
She groaned. Her arm was sore and her pack was nearly empty. The morning was not turning out to be a plentiful one.
Exasperated, she tugged her spear free and settled upon the soft sea bed, tucking her aquamarine tail underneath her. She laid the spear at her side and lifted her fingertips to the conch hooked around her neck by a thin string of braided kelp. With curious violet eyes she examined the conch again, raising it from between her breasts and twirling it slowly between her forefinger and thumb. From end to end, it was perfectly intact, vibrantly pink, and glassy-smooth as the inner nest of an oyster.
There was something extraordinary about the little shell, something Lena couldn’t quite put her finger on. She tilted it to her ear, marveling at how it hollowed the sounds of the sea—kelp rustling, fins slicing through the gentle current, a lone whale calf singing in the distance, searching for its pod.
She smiled. Perhaps this was the queen’s shell. Was there really so much harm in pretending?
On a sigh, she imagined what Javelin would say: Doubtful. It’s just a story, Lena.
Lena rolled her eyes. For most, the whispered legend of the queen served as a warning against humans and their dry, waterless world. A story to smother the wonder and angst from a young merrow’s girlish imagination.
Lena had never quite fit in with the other merrow women. Had never slipped starfish into her hair and batted her eyes at the handsome mermen in town, or dreamed of a tidy, cavern home to call her own. She’d always wanted something. . . more.
Now, she tilted her gaze to the glittering surface. She clutched the shell in her palm as a painful yearning seized her heart. Had the queen felt this way, long ago? Was that why her eyes had wandered to the shore? Why her heart had been so easily romanced by a human lover?
On an exhale, Lena unfurled her fingers, letting the conch collapse against her chest. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw a crab crawl out from beneath a large clamshell, its speckled back still blanketed by sand.
With her spear, she pierced its shell and skewered it. The crab’s blue legs writhed as she tore its largest claw from its body. This would serve as a meal, and the other crabs collected would be saved for her trip home.
As she sucked the white meat from the crab’s hard shell, Lena caught sight of a hazy figure moving toward her. She lowered her spear to her scaly lap and strained to see who it might be. It certainly wasn’t Javelin, who’d gone to the far side of Sogen Hav to scavenge. This figure seemed to be frail, perhaps elderly, slow-moving and hunchbacked. Her tail was silvery white, a faded, ashen shade.
“Don’t be alarmed!” the merrow woman called, her voice curdled by age. She raised a rigid arm in greeting and signaled for Lena to wait.
Lena tugged the crab from the end of her spear. Perhaps this older merrow simply required food. Javelin might scold her for giving away her sparse catch, but she’d caught enough yesterday to tide them over till morning.She could always rise early and hunt for breakfast before the dawn.
“May I come sit with you?” the merrow woman asked. Her sagging skin was adorned by worn and crumbling shells. Barnacles sprawled over her collarbone and clung to her breasts. Twisted strands of kelp were wrapped around each of her arms, from shoulder to wrist.
Lena nodded, her curious gaze drifting over the sickly yellow tint of the stranger’s complexion. With a small tilt of her chin, she gestured the woman to a large boulder nearby.
“A hunter, I see.” The merrow woman’s thin lips curled into a smirk. She brushed a wisp of dark gray hair from her face and raised a brow at Lena’s spear.
“Are you hungry?” Lena asked, and extended the half-eaten crab to her.
With fragile, bony fingers, the woman took the offered meat. She pressed the shell to her lips and began to suck on the textured meal, slipping it from its hard compartment.
“Thank you,” she said between mouthfuls. She cracked the shell against the boulder and pushed the remnants in between her teeth. “You’re a fair one, kaereste.” Dearest. “Fairer than most of the maidens here in Sogen Hav.” She lifted a finger to Lena’s cheek.
Instinctively, Lena jerked away. Other merrows might blush at the remark, but Lena had never spent much time in front of a mirror. Beauty had no bearing upon her ability to provide for her family. It didn’t matter if her skin was rich or fair, so long as she was swift with her spear, and strong.
“You remind me of a woman I used to know,” the old merrow continued, lapping the inner shell with her tongue. “She was powerful and beautiful. Brave, too. . . so unlike the women who flit about in our seas.”
“Who was she?” Lena slipped her fingers absently over her throat. She watched the woman with bridled caution, unable to resist a story.
The woman gave the crab one last slurp, then discarded its empty shell on the sandy floor. She adjusted herself on the boulder, sliding her fingers over the muted, gray scales of her tail.
“The former queen,” she said, her voice low. “Mette.”
Lena’s eyes widened with surprise. “You knew the queen?” she gasped.
The woman smirked. “So, you know the tale then, hmm? It’s beautifully sad, isn’t it? A queen betrayed by the land she loved so much, and banished from the sea.”
The woman tilted her chin back with a hearty laugh. Her spindly fingers lifted again, dashing after Lena’s long brunette strands. She curled Lena’s hair around her forefinger and pulled, drawing her near.
“The king knew his daughter’s heart lived not beneath the waves, but above, where the sun glistens high in the sky.”
Lena watched the merrow’s hand drift up, gesturing toward the tumbling, foam-crested waters overhead.
She swallowed. That same longing lurked in her own heart—a secret wish to swim ashore and see the world of sky and sun.
“Mette never belonged here,” the woman sneered. “Poseidon’s magic allowed her to live on land and swim freely beneath the sea. The moon was her only keeper. The whole world was hers for the taking. But in the end, she wasted her gift.”
“She fell in love,” Lena said quietly.
“Love,” the woman scoffed, finally releasing Lena’s hair. “The sea knew Mette could no longer belong to its people. Her heart had betrayed the water, and the sea changed the heart of the man she loved, causing him to lust for more than the softness of her body. He wanted her strength. Her power. Love can never protect a merrow from a human’s greed.”
“He tried to steal her shell,” Lena interjected.
The old merrow’s smirk changed into a full smile. Her decaying teeth showed yellow between her shriveled lips. Her gaze shifted lower. Lena fluttered her fingertips nervously over the conch, tracing its shallow, spiraling grooves.
“He tried,” the woman murmured. “He spilled her blood on the sand. The blood of a merrow is power, kaereste. Mette’s lover may not have possessed her shell, but he stole from her nonetheless. He stole her power, her life. Her years became his.”
Lena furrowed her brow. She’d never heard this part of the story before. She stiffened as the woman’s fingers traveled to the conch and plucked it up for examination.
“How? How could he do that? How…”
“A taste of our blood, dearie,” the woman mocked. “There are rumors that, as the queen dissolved into the sea, her lover began to eat her alive.”
Lena’s lips curled in disgust. Could it be true? Was this the real reason the king had barred the merrow people from ever interacting with humans?
She shook her head. It couldn’t be. A man eating a merrow? The woman’s dark eyes burned bright with the thrill of her tale.
She’s only trying to get a rise out of me, Lena decided. Perhaps she has nothing better to do.
“I thank you for the meal, kaereste.” The merrow pushed herself up from the boulder. She opened her palm, displaying a glittering selection of long, obsidian shards.
“For your kindness,” she explained, and pressed the shards into Lena’s hand. Her pruned fingers drifted over Lena’s hair, then withdrew with a start, as if she’d been stung by a jellyfish.
“Be careful of your curiosity, kaereste,” she said, dropping her husky voice to a whisper. “Danger lurks beyond the sandy crusts of the shore. All merrows know that. But danger lurks here too, in the deepest parts of Sogen Hav. And here,” she tapped Lena’s conch—a brusque, urgent gesture, “. . . right around your pretty neck.”
Lena stared dumbly at the obsidian pieces glaring up from her flattened palms. It was a small fortune, surely more than anyone in Sogen Hav could afford to freely give.
She parted her lips to refuse the gift, but when she peered up again, the woman was gone. In her place, a school of dark-teal fish hurried by, and three brightly colored crabs gathered in the sand.
Lena whipped her gaze back and forth, confused, trying to determine where the woman had gone. But there was no trace of her. Not even the gouge of her tail against the soft, ocean floor.
Baffled, she shook her head and pushed her spear into the outer shells of the three lingering crabs. She slipped them into her bag. A small catch, but it would certainly make up for the time she’d spent with the odd woman. The thick shards of obsidian would do well at the market when Javelin next returned.
With a kick of her tail, she launched away from the boulder. The shards and crab shells rattled together in her pack as she began to swim home.
How strange, for such a brittle old woman to carry such riches, or to depart so quickly. Lena knit her brow. Why had she never heard the old merrow’s version of the legend before? Had she made it up?
Why would anyone fabricate such a gruesome end to the queen’s tragic tale?
Uneasiness sloshed at the pit of Lena’s stomach as images circled through her mind: Mette’s lover, knee-deep on the wet, scarlet shore, slurping the queen’s blood from her veins. Scooping out her innards with his hands. Gnawing on her bones.
Irritation prickled her skin. Her favorite story was ruined now, twisted into something unsavory, and for what? The sick amusement of an old woman? A few minutes of twisted glee?
But what if it was true?
She shoved the merrow’s curdled voice out of her head, determined to erase the whole, strange encounter from her memory.
But as she swam, she was almost sure she heard the soft murmuring of kaereste drifting through the current of sea.
“Javelin,” Lena hissed, breathless as she swam quickly through the cavern hall and lurched into his room.
Her brother sat on a small cot scraped into the stone wall. He glided a small, silver object behind his back as he turned his soft blue eyes in her direction.
“What’s the matter?” he asked, pushing himself up quickly with his strong silver tail.
Lena extended her hand, showing the obsidian without hesitation.
Javelin’s eyes grew wide with surprise as he plucked a piece from her palm. “How?” he stammered, his voice drifting into a small laugh of disbelief. “Where did you find these Lena?”
“I didn’t find them,” she explained. “They were given to me. I was hunting, and a woman appeared—”
“What woman?” Javelin furrowed his brow. He lifted all the other pieces from her hand, almost as if he were fearful they’d disappear. “What did you do to receive these?”