Vast and Brutal Sea, page 19
“There is blood in the water,” she says.
“You can still turn around,” I say. “You don’t have to do this.”
She gives me a long sideways glance, her loose black hair all over her face. In her human form, it’s easy to forget how powerful she is. That she’s a cursed being. That her talons can rip your head clean off.
“Any other prince would be happy that so many clamor to risk their lives for him,” she says. “Yet you would rather risk your own.”
“Don’t ask me to explain,” I say.
The Alliance has cleared the shoreline, and they’re putting themselves in place like chess pieces. Somewhere Layla is wondering where I’ve gone off to, why I didn’t say good-bye. And I know that I couldn’t say good-bye to her. When I close my eyes, I don’t see Nieve or Gwen. I see Layla on top of me, pressing her hands on my chest, kissing me like she might never get another chance.
Amada nudges my shoulder. “Focus.”
“Focus.” I repeat the word over and over. Focus on Toliss Island ahead of us and the white room where the nautilus maid waits for me. Focus on not giving up. Focus on being alive.
My body hums with energy and anticipation until I think I’ll burst right out of my skin.
And we run straight into a cresting wave. The sea tries to push us back at first, but we push ahead and swim on. My eyes adjust to the dark water. I hold my dagger ahead of me and let my tail do the work. We swim for two miles surrounded by silence and dark. I swallow against the coppery tastes in the sea, the mangled body parts that float back up to the surface. It nearly makes me retch because I can’t get the flavor out of my mouth.
Then we see the island. From beneath, it is an expanse of stone. The tunnels are lit with the white-blue light of tiny creatures that cling to the stone walls. Beneath that, the shark guard are chained in a circle, ravenously biting at the space in front of them. Their skin is raw where their chains have drawn blood.
Around them, merrows swim in a circle, taunting the creatures.
Amada and I hold back, watching and waiting for the right time. If we move too quickly, they’ll know we’re there and we’ll lose the advantage of a surprise attack. I swim close to the ground and stay behind the boulders.
“If we go in from different directions, we can create enough of a distraction to get rid of the merrows and then free the sharks.”
I wait for Amada to agree with me because this was what we decided on. Distract the merrows and get in through the tunnels.
She’s gone. I look over the boulders, and there she is, swimming in her beast form. Her dragon jaw is open wide; her hind legs retract to let her tail do the work. If I scream for her to stop, it’ll give away her position.
The merrows shift around like they can smell something new, something dark and threatening, her roar a deep echo around them.
When I fought her, I know she was holding back. She’s faster than I imagined. With her claws, she rips across a puffer merrow’s chest, slicing so deep that she rips the heart out before he breaks down into black blood. Before the others can reach her, she lunges with an open jaw, ripping the head off a hammer-headed merrow. She doesn’t spit it back out.
They’re crazed, and she undulates, swimming toward the sharks. I ready myself to help her. There’s no way she can take two dozen of those things and another dozen sharks.
But she cries out and even though I can’t fully understand the cry of the river people, I know she’s telling me to stay put. With her claws, she breaks the chains that hold back the shark guard. One, two, five, ten. Their teeth are like bear traps closing against bone. They charge straight at the merrows, and within minutes, they’ve swallowed them whole.
As the sharks swim in a cyclone formation Amada swims between them. They nudge her body in a silent thank-you.
I hover just outside their circle. Then they stop. I brandish Triton’s dagger and they part for me. Amada shifts into her human torso.
“You didn’t wait for me.” I frown.
“I saw an opening and I took it,” she says. “The way is clear.”
The shark guard swims around the island, but they’re not a danger to me or mine.
“I will return to the others. I will tell them I saw you through safely.”
And then I swim up into the bright light of the tunnels.
The tunnels are a maze. Thalia said to choose one of the openings on the east, which would lead me to the farthest chambers where prisoners are held.
The problem with looking at an island from underneath is that I don’t know where east is.
I take my best guess and decide to not jump out of the pool like a topless girl inside a birthday cake. Nope, that would give away the element of surprise.
The first tunnel leads me to a dim-lit room. I break the surface slowly, keeping my body pressed against the stone. I don’t recognize the voices, but there are children crying. The sound is pained and lonely and scared. Footsteps walk in quickly. A girl’s voice cooing. “Please don’t cry,” she begs.
Then another. A softer voice, singing. Gwen.
“They’re pretty,” the strange girl says. “Aren’t they? All things are pretty when they’re small. Even us.”
I chance it and lift my head a fraction over the ledge of the pool. Gwen and the girl have their back to me. They cradle babies in their arms. Their faces are distorted, like looking at something through broken glass. They’re merrow babies. Dozens and dozens of them in their own cribs.
“Does Mother truly have the power to make them better?”
“Not better,” Gwen says. “There’s nothing wrong with them. She can only make them stronger.”
The girl looks confused, as if everything she’s learned is changing in front of her eyes.
“When do we get to name them?” she asks eagerly.
“When they’re ready,” Gwen snaps, and the girl shrinks back.
A new wave of merrow babies for Nieve to raise.
“I like this one. His skin is like a sunset.” The girl rubs the baby’s back. “Can we call him Sunset?”
Gwen makes a feral sound and the girl backs away, putting the sunset merrow baby back in its crib. She looks my way and I sink down. I hurry back through the tunnels, keeping myself flat against the stones. When I press on the light creatures, they pull back into the tiny pores of the wall. I take another route and swim upward, breaking the surface up to my ears.
The voice speaking makes me go red with anger.
“I’ve instructed all my brothers to the head of the island. The beach is the only safe place to land. Are you certain they’ll come on ships?” Archer’s heavy feet pace around the room. I can’t see him but I can picture his scarred face, his teeth smiling cruelly.
When Lucine answers, I shake with anger because I know, I know Kurt has to be here. “I thought Nieve fixed you. Didn’t you hear what I said? The Mutt’s people will come on ships. I’ve seen it. If you don’t trust in my sight, then you can go cry on your mother’s lap and ask her to do better.”
“I do not cry,” Archer snarls. He bites at the air, and feet shuffle back and forth.
I hear Kurt whisper something like, “I don’t like this.” And Lucine placates him like he’s a child.
“Don’t, my darling,” she says.
Kurt grunts and walks away, toward where I am. “I’m going to check on my guard.”
There’s a splash. I press my body against the tunnel and the light scatters around me. I consider making a dash for it, but he doesn’t look behind and takes a tunnel going to what might be west. Something about Lucine’s tone toward Archer makes me stay and listen.
“You really ought to keep a tighter leash on him,” Archer tells Lucine.
Archer growls at her.
“Once Tristan comes ashore,” Lucine says, “it is up to Nieve to take his scepter.”
Archer steps closer to her, threatening her space. “And what of your bastard prince?”
“He will see this is the future for us,” she says. “I will make him see.”
Thalia is right. Lucine is controlling Kurt. How do I make him see? I sink back down the tunnel. This time, I let myself sense the water. East. Shouldn’t a good sense of direction come with the merman package? There’s a tunnel that doesn’t look like the others. The light is fainter, and the water that runs through it is colder.
I take it.
The chill makes me want to turn back, but then I remember the first time I met Chrysilla, the nautilus maid. I went through the well, and the water, like here, was so cold I nearly stopped breathing. My gills refuse to open and I hold my breath, pushing myself up the dark tunnel until I break the surface.
There’s a sigh of relief and I step out of the pool. In the center of the white shimmering stone, there is a basin with shallow water. The nautilus maid is not the way I last saw her. Her skin is cold, bleeding where it’s dry and cracked. Her rose-colored eyes search the room, but she’s dazed, and it takes time for her to focus on my face.
There are two fish in the pool, swimming around her. A few half-eaten fins lie at the bottom and around the floor. Her laria, the tongueless girls that were her handmaidens, are nowhere to be seen. I saw them here in my vision, but they’re gone. Long streaks of scarlet blood drag all the way to the chamber entrance. I can picture their dead bodies getting taken away.
I step closer to Chrysilla, the oracle. The water dripping from me is like the heartbeat of a clock.
When I stand directly in front of her, she sighs once more. It takes strength for her to hold her head up, and the long, fleshy tendrils of her hair hang limp at her sides.
“You didn’t forget me,” she says.
I shake my head. This is not fair.
“Do it,” she says, pressing a hand over her heart. “Do it or you die with me.”
I shake my head. “Why did she take you?”
Chrysilla tries to smile. “Not Nieve. It was my sister who knew I was hiding something. But we have taken each other’s blood and only you can have my secrets.”
I get closer to her. She reaches out a cold hand and presses her fingers on my wet face. I take one of the fish that swim around her and put it in her mouth. She bites and nods. “They took my laria.”
She chews, shutting her eyes like it’s the best thing she’s ever eaten. Her last meal.
“Why me?” I want to know. “Why did you pick me?”
Kai’s words ring in my ear: they play their games.
She leans forward and presses her hand on my chest, right over my heart. “This is why.”
The color is fading from her eyes, like the way it did from my grandfather before he turned into coral.
Do it, I tell myself. Do it because if she dies, I’ll go with her, and then what was the point of all of this?
I unsheathe Triton’s dagger. My legs feel weak.
“No. The scepter.” Chrysilla shakes her head, hand still pressed over her heart. “That is how you will retain control of your beast no matter what.”
Her veins are raised and getting darker, like the blood is bubbling inside them and they’re ready to burst.
“Do it,” she hisses.
I bite down and steel myself, but it isn’t me who will feel the pain, is it? It isn’t my life that’s ending, is it?
My eyes are closed and I force them to stay open because I know I shouldn’t look away, shouldn’t hide from my own darkness.
And I take the Scepter of the Earth, look into her eyes, and plunge the crystal into her chest.
And if the earthly no longer knows your name,
Whisper to the silent earth: I’m flowing.
To the flashing water say: I am.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
The Daughter of the Sea would never have peace.
For days and months and years, she swam around the Golden Palace alone. Her friends were few and far between. The old women of the court who marveled at her magic. The leering warriors who longed to feel the strange pulse of her magic on their skin.
The Silver Queen wondered if she was strong enough to be patient. To see her captors dead at her hands. She repeated their names, like promises to the Goddess of the Moon, the Gods of the Sea.
She gave food to the merpeople lingering outside the palace and took her husband’s wrath when he heard of her kindness.
“They will never love you,” he told her.
She held her hand over the sting on her cheek and waited.
The waiting was the most painful, for she was pregnant once more. She could feel the life of the child pulling at her life strings, her life magic. The first time she carried a child, it came out small and bloody like a broken heart ripped out of a chest. It might as well have been; the Silver Queen wailed harder than the day she was taken from her home.
And then another, and another.
The Rebel King sent a small army to the Sea King’s gate. They would pay for a daughter who could not bear children.
Rumors spread through the kingdoms of the Silver Queen and her dozens of bloody children. That she ate them from the womb for her blood magic. That she was cursed to never bear life of the Rebel King. That the magic destroyed her from the inside and she would one day burn.
Not this one, she promised, pressing her hands on her swollen belly. She was bigger than the times before. Stronger. This child was strong and healthy. She could feel it swim laps inside her. This time, the king let her rest. She would not perform at court. She would not leave her chambers.
The Silver Queen asked for her lady-in-waiting, Melaya, and no one else. Just as well. The Rebel King wanted nothing to do with the queen or her child. His forces were weakening in the Northern Seas and he wouldn’t return for weeks.
It happened when the moon was gone from the surface. She felt the pain come on too soon, and she held her swollen belly and prayed for the child to stay inside. Melaya took her to the caves south of the Golden Palace where the magic was raw. The king knew nothing of the caves’ existence. Life there was strong, rooted deep in the earth. There had been merpeople here once, their markings etched deep into the walls.
The Daughter of the Sea screamed as her fins ripped in half, parting to make way as the white head of her child crowned.
“Shhh,” Melaya urged her. They didn’t know who was nearby, and so the Silver Queen bit down on her teeth and pushed. She closed her eyes and willed the child to leave her until a small mermaid, no bigger than her fist, came out.
All at once, the Queen felt empty and weak, a black void filling where there had once been life. And the small mermaid child was not a mermaid at all.
“What is it?” Nieve cried, holding her arms out for the child. “What’s happened?”
Melaya took a blade and cut off the lifeline that still attached the child to its mother. She brushed the hair away from the child’s face and bit her lip to keep from crying because she knew if the Rebel King laid eyes on the child, he would not stand it.
“Let me see her,” said the Silver Queen.
In her arms, she could see the girl’s deformity. Her teeth as sharp as needles when they drew blood from her mother’s milk. The left side of the child’s body was smooth as pearl, her hair grew in white tufts, and her scales were white as the stars. It was as if there were two halves to her. The right side was bald, the skin puckered as if it were burned.
“Gwenivere,” the Silver Queen said. “I will call her Gwenivere.”
They were brown as the earth with eyes like golden suns, swimming and fighting through the palace. They said after the Silver Queen lost the last child, the king no longer touched her. Her madness was too much for the king to withstand.
And she let them have their whispered stories, as she left the palace every night and swam to the caves where Melaya and Gwenivere waited for her.
Sometimes she came with food, shark fins and tentacles.
Other times she came with a maiden. The first one was young and happy to be in the company of the queen. She took the queen’s hand eagerly and followed deep, deep down into the ancient caves. The maiden stared at the creatures she’d never seen before, their sharp teeth and glowing faces. She traced her fingers along anemones that glowed with inner light and tickled her skin.
When they reached the mouth of the cave, she hesitated, feeling the water turn icy.
“What’s in there?” the maiden asked.
“My treasure,” the queen said with a lovely smile as she put a hand to the maiden’s chest and put her to sleep.
It wasn’t supposed to hurt. All Nieve needed was some of the girl’s life. Just a bit of blood to heal Gwenivere. But the girl woke up and screamed and screamed, and with another touch of the queen’s hands, she was reduced to surf.
They tried again and again until Gwenivere had nothing left but a thin scar along the side of her body. She was as beautiful as any mermaid in the court. She laughed and sang with Melaya, always wondering where her mother went off to and longed for her return. Gwenivere never noticed where the pretty maidens went, but she woke to the burst of bubbles in the sea and reached out with her tiny hands to touch them.
Mermaids missing from the harems, mermaids missing from their homes.
The Silver Queen sat silently on the throne, knowing she had to stay away from her child to keep her safe. She kept her secret treasure close, marrying her to a strong merman, a herald of the Eastern Seas who relished the magic of Gwenivere’s hands.
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