Vast and brutal sea, p.13

Vast and Brutal Sea, page 13

 

Vast and Brutal Sea
 


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  That does it.

  I ready my scepter and she readies her hands. With Kurt gone, the power has left my scepter once again, and I get a full blast of her magic. The pillars crack and break. I never knew how much pain one person could experience. I’m screaming, the pillar falling across my chest, but I don’t recognize the sounds that come out of my mouth. I hold up my hands to push the weight off but it’s too heavy.

  “Gwen,” I shout.

  She swims over to me and I think she’s going to help me. Hot shocks pulse through my body as I feel something break. Ribs.

  “Gwen.”

  She looks at me, a white pearly liquid coming out of the corners of her eyes. She shakes her head and reaches down, her pale hands around the hilt of my scepter. It burns and she lets go.

  “Gwen.”

  She touches my face. Then she pulls back and gasps as she sees something that displeases her. She swims away in a white blur through the gaping hole in the castle wall, leaving me alone, screaming her name.

  “Forget her!” Kai shouts at Dylan.

  They’re here.

  Amada too.

  Dylan is about to chase after Gwen but turns back around. They each grab a part of the pillar and lift. Another set of hands pulls me out from under it. They let the pillar go, and it falls with a heavy thud.

  “You court death more than me, Cousin,” Brendan says. He pulls my arm around his shoulder and holds up my weight.

  I choke back a laugh to spare myself the pain. “Where is Kurt?”

  “We’ve evacuated most of our people,” Kai says in a rush. “But the merrows are still coming in through the tunnels. The guard is weakening and we can’t hold them back.”

  “We have to destroy the tunnels,” Brendan says. “Kurtomathetis is with the king, safe in the castle gardens.”

  “We need to go to them,” I say.

  I can feel them trading glances. “He won’t hurt me. It’s the only way the trident pieces will work right now.”

  I wince at the prickling pain that spreads on my chest where the pillar crushed me. Amada shakes her reptilian head, growling in protest. She nudges me to swim to safety.

  “Take me to him,” I say once more, harshly.

  And that’s the end of it. I hold on to Brendan and the others follow.

  The gardens are a patchwork of tall, thick vines that sway in the current. Flowers with petals that flare like stars emit a soft light. From here, we can hear the shouts of the merrows and watch as they consume the castle.

  King Karanos lies in a patch of the tallest plants with turquoise blooms. Kurt swims over him, staring.

  When we approach, he turns his head like he’s surprised. I let go of Brendan and Dylan and get closer.

  “Is he—” But I stop myself. No, he’s not dead. If he were dead, he wouldn’t look like this.

  “Not yet,” Kurt says.

  “Tristan,” says the king. I don’t even recognize the hoarseness of his voice. This is happening too quickly, and panic fills me because I don’t know how to fix this.

  Kurt swims away. He’s trying to hide his feelings by putting on that mask of his. But I know him and he can’t fool me.

  I sink down to my knees.

  “Did they take Chrysilla?” the king asks.

  I nod and look down at the sand. With a weak hand he lifts my face up. His eyes are the white of pearl now, his once-tan skin fading like an old photograph.

  “This is still yours,” he says, giving me back Triton’s dagger.

  I hesitate, but I can’t say no to him.

  “There are still so many things I wish I could ask you. Why did you choose me?”

  He breathes in. “Some things we are not to understand until a stranger reflects it in us.”

  “We can heal you,” I say, thinking there’s got to be another place. Another Eternity. Another source of healing water that can undo this. “We can find a way.”

  I grab his hand and a heavy wetness trickles down my face. It’s a white liquid, hot in my eyes. And as it floats away it hardens into tiny pearls. What the f—

  He squeezes my hand, a gravelly breath going in and out. “Do not lose each other.”

  And I nod because I know he’s talking about Kurt. How does he expect us to be friends again after we try to kill each other?

  Then he calls out, “Brendan.”

  My cousin is startled, as if a ghost is calling him to his grave. He goes to our grandfather’s side and takes my place kneeling.

  Kurt stands a few yards away from us, beside a statue. At first I don’t recognize the merman depicted. I barely recognize the statues in Central Park unless they have plaques, and this one doesn’t. His face is scrunched up like he’s mid-battle, and his split tails reach out at an unseen enemy. It’s Triton, it has to be.

  Kurt’s hands grip the hilt of the trident so hard his knuckles are white as snow.

  “What did he say?” Dylan asks me eagerly.

  Kai elbows him and then Dylan shrugs apologetically. She places a hand on my good shoulder, and I nod my thank-you. Inside, aside from the broken ribs, the bruised flesh, and the bloody raw shoulder, I feel another kind of pain. Inside me is a loss that I can’t handle. A part of myself that’s breaking, and I know it’s stupid because my time with my grandfather has been a blink in time. Parts of me are bitter and angry and betrayed, but despite it all, I wish I could do something to stop him from dying.

  Suddenly, Kai is surrounded by a stream of the tiniest pearls. One floats past me and I squeeze it in my hand. When I turn, there are merpeople all around us. Mermaids hold their babies between their breasts, and mermen hold their swords over their heads. Refugees from the castle. As the Glass Castle is taken over in the distance, we form a perfect circle around King Karanos. I don’t know whether to stay or run, but in the end, I hold the Scepter of the Earth over my head and take comfort in knowing that he’s not alone.

  It starts with his eyes, once the same turquoise as mine, now stark white. They roll back into his head. His skin withers and breaks. His scales shed into white sand, his bones twisting and winding until all that is left is a towering mass of coral. The vines and flowers of the garden instantly entwine themselves around it.

  Kurt once told me, “We always go back to the sea.”

  That’s all I can think about as I take my eyes off my grandfather and notice that Kurt has his back turned, alone and outside of the ring of refugees—scores of mermaids and mermen—who now turn to me.

  They bow.

  “Stand, everyone,” I say. “Or, you know, float.”

  A strong merman decked in the gold of the palace guard swims forward. “You were chosen as the king’s champion. The silver witch has taken our homes above and below the sea. We will follow you wherever you will go.”

  “My guard is also yours,” Dylan says, backed by two dozen of what’s left of his men.

  Here they are, giving themselves to me. Their loyalty. Asking me to protect them. It’s what I’ve wanted, the acceptance of the Sea Court.

  “I accept,” I say. We embrace forearms and I feel a little more hopeful. A plan is blooming in the back of my head but first…“We must go somewhere safe.”

  I turn to Kai and Brendan. “We must go back to Coney Island. To the Alliance.”

  “Where will you be?” Kai asks.

  “I’ll be right behind you.” Then I turn to where Kurt is waiting for me. “There’s something I have to do.”

  Kai, Dylan, and Brendan usher our people through a tunnel behind the gardens. Truth is, I’m pretty nervous about having so many merpeople on Coney Island’s shore. But the seas aren’t safe, not with Nieve staking a claim in every nook and cranny, and Coney Island is the only place I’ve ever equated with home and safety.

  I swim to where Kurt has been waiting.

 
“They’re reveling,” he says, eyes fixed on the Glass Castle. There are places where the structure looks like wrecking balls have gone in and out of it. “Yet it still stands. The castle that both of my fathers built. I remember my father and his men molding the pillars from black sand. I remember my mother waiting for him every night with the day’s catch, watching us eat until we fell asleep. When he woke, he’d go do it again until it was done. I remember King Karanos coming to our chambers to speak to my parents. To give us riches for our contribution to the kingdom. And I remember the king holding my chin with his hand and looking into my eyes and telling me that I was going to be a great warrior someday. From that moment, I set down my father’s tools and took up a sword.”

  “Kurt—” I’d like to talk about the great mer-elephant in the room, but Kurt is all business.

  He points to the tunnels we came through. “First, we’ll close those off, then—” We let the “then” linger.

  We swim to the openings of the tunnels. A few merrows are still trickling through on their way to the Glass Castle. I latch on to the power of my scepter, pushing through the pain in my body. Together, we tear down the valley wall. Boulders break off and cascade in an avalanche to the castle grounds.

  Here comes the “then.”

  “Are you sure you’re—”

  Kurt lets go first. He holds the prongs of the trident over his head. I join him with the light of my scepter, aiming at the bottom pillars of the castle. The merrows scream as the structure breaks over their heads and crushes them. Some try to escape, but Kurt fries them before they have a chance to swim away.

  For a long time, we wait.

  Wait for the glass and stones to settle.

  Wait for the black cloud oozing out of the castle to clear.

  Wait for our worlds to mend back together, but I know they can’t. Not right now. Not yet.

  Kurt leads the way out through the secret tunnel. The pitch blackness folds around us, but I shine the light of my scepter. There is no life here, not as long as we swim through the twisting passageway. I can feel myself slow down, my wounds taking over. I push harder and harder, and then we’re out.

  The pressure loosens from my limbs; the water is warmer and lighter.

  “Wait!” I shout. “Where are you going?”

  Kurt looks over his shoulder. “The people have chosen you, Tristan. I have a different path.”

  He turns around, as if he’s realized something. It’s like there’s another voice in his head, and I realize it’s Lucine’s. He swims closer to me with his trident at the ready. The lightning sparks. My eyes are heavy. My arm hurts too much to lift my weapons. I’m weak enough that he could kill me if he wanted to.

  Then a growl reverberates through the water. A shadow climbs over me, snapping its teeth. Kurt moves back wordlessly and swims away.

  Amada swims around me, shifting her top half back into human form. She has strange plants in her hands.

  “That’s twice you’ve saved me,” I say.

  She gives me a small smile and sizes up my wounds. “We must get you to the surface. I can heal you.”

  When I sheathe my weapons, my muscles and bones burn at a level of pain I never thought I’d reach. Amada shifts into her Naga form and I shift into my legs, getting on her back. I hold on as tightly as I can, and she swims like my life depends on it.

  When we reach the surface, the sun is setting over the Coney Island shore.

  Amada pulls me onto the sand and shoves some of the plants down my throat.

  “Chew,” she commands.

  And I do it. The plants are salty and bitter like ginger, but as the liquid squeezes out of them, my skin warms my whole body. I can feel my chest rising and I can breathe better. She chews on something as well, then spits it out into her hand and spreads it over my shoulder.

  “I know you’re trying to help, but that is unhygienic.”

  She laughs. “My saliva mixed with these plants makes a healing salve.”

  “Oh.”

  “Yes, oh.”

  I lay my head back on the sand. The sky crackles with a coming storm. I can smell the recent rain on the sand, feel the swell of the boardwalk. I know I saw the damage through Kurt’s mind, but seeing it myself feels like I’m getting kicked in the gut all over again. I take a fistful of wet sand and rub it between my fingers. There’s a rusty bottle cap mixed in.

  Amada looks at it and says, “I’ve never seen a shell that looks like that.”

  I laugh. “That’s just trash. They’re all over the beach.”

  “Why would there be trash on the beach?”

  “This is your first time on human soil?”

  “Since our banishment. So long ago.” She nods, suddenly realizing how far away she is from home. I follow her eyes to the old rides—the Cyclone, the Wonder Wheel (still out of service and slightly dented because of certain sea creatures). The graffiti grates of the closed bars and restaurants. The overturned garbage cans that contain decaying food and plastic.

  “This is your home?”

  I’m about to say that it’s not always like this. Except it is.

  “Home sweet home,” I say.

  “How do you feel?” she asks.

  “Not dead.” I stand and hold out a hand to her on the boardwalk. “The others can’t have gone far.”

  I start heading toward Frederik’s place because the Aquarium was totaled.

  Then someone shouts my name from behind us. I draw my dagger and turn around, holding it at arm’s length. Amada bares her claws and readies herself in a fighting stance.

  At the end of my dagger is a lovely green-haired girl. I stand down immediately, and she jumps on me with a giant hug. “We’ve been waiting for you!”

  Amada scratches her head and retracts her claws.

  Thalia kisses my cheek with her lip-glossed mouth then holds my hands like she’s afraid I’ll go somewhere again.

  “Tristan,” Thalia says, startled. “You’ve cut your lovely hair.”

  “The seas are breaking apart and you frown at my haircut. What, don’t you like it?”

  She studies my face. “It makes you look too serious.”

  I run a hand over my buzz cut and shrug. “I’m still cute though, right?”

  “You’re absolutely gorgeous,” a dark voice says from behind me. Frederik, Mr. Creeps Up When You’re Not Looking Because He’s a Vampire Without Manners, stands with his hands buried in his pockets. Then he pulls me into a hug.

  “I must be a dead man,” I say, because the vampire doesn’t hug.

  “Not quite yet,” Fred says, eyeing Amada curiously. “But you will be if you don’t get your folk out of my house.”

  “They’re in your house?” My voice breaks. “I told Kai to bring them here.”

  Frederik tucks his black hair behind his ear. “In case you haven’t noticed, the city has been evacuated because of the encroaching hurricane, thanks to your kind. I couldn’t have them roaming the city. Marty took one look at the blond merman and ushered them all into the building.”

  “I thought the Alliance was staying with you,” I point out.

  Frederik nods coolly. “The space is big enough, but tempers will get the best of our small army.”

  I look up at the sky. Come on, Triton, as your descendant, do me a solid. I reach for my shirt because it feels tight on my chest, and then I realize I’m naked except for the scales that cover my goods. Right, that’s what pressure feels like.

  “Before we take care of the room and board for my small army, I have to find Shelly.”

  Frederik’s eyes widen. “She’s not in the park. Tonight’s a big night for her. She won’t want to be disturbed.”

  “What else do you need from her?” Thalia asks.

  I wish telepathy came with the merman gig. If all fails, there are always
charades.

  “I can’t say.” I put my hands on Frederik’s shoulders. He’s cold as hell, even through the black T-shirt. “I need Shelly’s help. Can you trust me?”

  Frederik wants nothing more than to get the Sea Court out of Coney Island. Ever since it arrived, our little strip on the Brooklyn beach has been terrorized.

  “Merrow!” Thalia wields her sword over her head.

  Amada is faster, running across the boardwalk and onto the sand. She shifts midair, jaw wide open. Her teeth sink into the creature’s neck, reducing it to stinky black flesh. Amada makes a deep guttural sound that’s a cross between a hairball and a growl. She sprints back to the beach to get the taste out of her mouth.

  “Shelly,” I say, pointing at the decomposing pile of flesh. “I don’t care if she doesn’t want to be disturbed.”

  “I’ll get Marty,” Frederik says. “Thalia, you and the—”

  “Naga,” I offer.

  “Right. You two patrol the beach. I’ll send help.”

  Thalia positions herself on a lifeguard tower. My lifeguard tower. The one Layla and I trade off on shifts. Just hold on a little longer, Layla, I think.

  “Come on, Sea Prince,” Frederik says. “You always know how to put a smile on my face.”

  “But you aren’t smiling,” I point out, following a few steps behind him.

  “Exactly.”

  Frederik leads Marty, Kai, and me down a manhole on Bowery and Jones Walk. The underground tunnels smell like cat vomit mixed with laundry detergent.

  “I must say, Tristan,” Kai says, “you do take me to the most interesting places.”

  “Don’t blame the Sea Prince,” Frederik says. “The invitation requires us to enter in pairs. And the skeleton brothers prefer to see a lovely face.”

  Kai smirks but ignores the compliment. “You mean to say there are creatures who live down here?”

 
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