I hadn’t meant to spy on the humans. It just happened.
I was enjoying a leisurely swim, swishing my tail and floating on my back, staring at the wispy, white clouds in the sky. I hadn’t realized how close I’d come to the shore until the sound of laughter reached my ears.
I dropped below the waves, jerking my eyes around to see a group of six humans skipping along the sand, letting the water play with their toes. All six were female, but when I looked behind them I noticed two large men and an older woman strolling along casually. My eyes darted back to the young women, even though I really should have swum away. It wouldn’t do them, or me, any good if they saw me—a merman.
“Lily! Don’t go too far, Princess!” the older woman called.
My eyes caught on one of the young women. I could hardly be blamed for not looking away quickly—she was beautiful. She had long, red hair, and the greenest eyes I’d ever seen. The only thing that could make her look better was a tail instead of legs. The young woman stopped and smiled. “Don’t worry, Carla. We’ll be careful.”
I inched closer to the shore, making sure to stay unnoticed. The five other young women chattered together, and one with dark hair nudged Lily. “So? Are you going to tell us what you think of your latest suitor?”
Lily made a face. “I’d really rather not.” I wasn’t sure if it was in an effort to change the subject, but Lily gasped and dropped to her knees. “Oh, look! Poor thing.”
One of the other young women rolled her eyes. “It’s just a turtle.”
“It’s trapped. And it’s a baby.” I made out a small lump in the sand, caught between two rocks. Lily cooed as she tried to work the baby turtle free. “It’s okay. I’ll get you out.”
The five other young women quickly lost interest in her task. “Catch up when you’re done,” one said with a yawn.
Lily wasn’t paying attention to them. Instead, she freed the turtle and held it up in her hands triumphantly. She crossed to the edge of the sea and knelt, stroking her thumbs over the top of the baby sea turtle’s head. Something was drawing me toward the princess, and I didn’t disappear beneath the surface like I should have.
“You’re free,” she whispered to the turtle. Her guards, friends, and maid were too far away to hear her words, but I heard them. She smiled and set the turtle gently in the water. Her smile faded as she watched it go. “If only I was.”
Then she got up and walked after the others, leaving me to wonder what exactly trapped the human princess named Lily.
My eyes flicked up to land on Rin’s violet ones. “I’m not distracted,” I told her.
“In that case, I’m sure you know you’ve been steadily drifting backwards for the last five minutes, and you’re going to hit the sea cliff in about thirty seconds.” Rin shrugged, the tips of her long, golden hair floating in the salt water. “That’s probably going to hurt, but have fun.”
“What?” I turned my head sharply to look behind me and saw the dark outline of the sea cliff lurking beneath the waves. The current was carrying me closer to it at an alarming speed.
I gave some combination of a yelp and a shout and started kicking my tail against the current, trying to get away from the sea cliff. While slamming into it wouldn’t be fatal, it would be pretty painful and there would probably be some blood, and I didn’t think anyone was in the mood to fight off a shark attack.
I squeezed my eyes shut and braced for impact even as I continued fighting against the current. The next thing I knew, a hand had clasped around my wrist and yanked me forward. Rin pursed her lips and rolled her eyes at me while bracing one hand against the sea cliff and keeping the other locked around my wrist. “Still think you’re not distracted?”
“Thanks,” I told her, my tail hitting the sea cliff a lot more gently than it had been about to.
I could tell she wanted to keep being annoyed with me, but even as she shook her head, Rin smiled slightly. “What were you thinking about, Torrent?”
Against my will, Lily’s face came into my mind. Big green eyes fringed with thick eyelashes, and her beautiful face framed by red hair. I hadn’t been able to get her out of my head since the first time I’d seen her. The problem was, I was mer.
And she was human.
I pushed her image from my mind and smirked at Rin. “Wouldn’t you like to know?”
Rin raised an eyebrow. “I just saved your life.”
“You did not.”
“I just saved your pride.”
“True,” I conceded. I rubbed my hand over the back of my neck. “I wasn’t thinking about anything important.” And it was true. The girl wasn’t important. Not important like protecting my people or making my mother proud and proving I was worthy of the throne. Compared to those things, the girl was nothing. So why couldn’t my memory leave me alone?
“Next time you’re not thinking about anything important, try not to let the current carry you along until you almost hit the sea cliff, okay?” Rin nudged my side playfully and then flicked her tail so that she shot forward in the water.
I dipped my head underwater and followed suit, kicking my tail hard. I passed Rin quickly and lifted my head above the water to grin. She laughed and lifted her shiny green tail to flick water in my direction.
We were interrupted by Tide’s commanding bark. “Torrent! Rin! Your kingdom is defenseless while you lollygag.”
Considering I was the heir to Atlantis, Tide technically shouldn’t have been talking to me like that. On the other hand, as the commander of the Sirens, he was my superior until I became king. Besides, he was right and we both knew it.
Rin and I quickly swam back to our positions, near enough to defend one another, but not near enough to start a conversation. Berach was on my other side and sent me a smirk, probably amused that I’d gotten in trouble. He was under the impression that I didn’t get disciplined enough because I was the prince. In reality, he was more of a hothead than I was, so he got disciplined more frequently because I didn’t do half the foolish things he did.
Of course, to his credit, I was pretty sure Berach had never had a ridiculous infatuation with a human princess.
Instead, he had a banished ex-Siren for an uncle and a wicked sense of humor. I wasn’t sure which of us was worse off.
I quickly decided that would have to be me as Tide shot over to me, eyes stormy. I tensed, my eyes lingering on the trident Tide carried, a symbol of power. My mother had a trident, and Tide, being her second-in-command, was the only other mer who got to carry one. Not even I had a trident. Instead, the rest of us were relegated to other kinds of weapons. Possibly our most effective weapon….was our voices.
My shoulders tensed as Tide stopped in front of me, looking me directly in the eyes. “For what purpose did you abandon your post, your highness?”
I looked to a spot over his head, intentionally avoiding his eyes. “It was a brief lapse in attention. I assure you it won’t happen again.”
“You put your citizens in danger. You are the first line of defense. Anything could have happened or gotten through while you were distracted.”
I’d heard this lecture countless times before. I knew the risks and I knew my responsibilities, just like I knew what tragic consequences my inattention could have. “I know, Sir.”
Tide let out a breath, his blue tail swishing in the water, his stormy eyes calming. “You know your duties as a Siren. You know why you were chosen. Because I believe in you and your abilities.”
“Make sure my trust is not misplaced.”
“I will, Sir.”
Tide took a breath, likely to end the conversation, but an urgent shout pierced the air before he could. “Sir, something’s approaching!”
In an instant, Tide was gone, over to the mermaid who’d shouted the warning. Berach and Rin both twisted toward them, alert, exactly like I was. “What is it?” Tide demanded of the lookout. “Can you tell? Sharks?”
“No.” The mermaid shook her head, adjusting her telescope. Then she said one word, one that was even more dreaded then shark. “Humans.”
Instantly, Sirens started getting into place, even before Tide roared, “To your stations!”
I kicked my aqua colored tail and shot into a triangle formation with Rin and Berach. My eyes scanned the horizon, searching. What I saw sent a spike of adrenaline through me. A ship. Approaching quickly.
Berach crowed and rubbed his dark hands together. “Finally! Time to have some fun.”
Rin glared at him. “This isn’t supposed to be ‘fun.’ It’s for protection.”
Berach shrugged. “Can’t it be both?”
“Stop it,” I snapped at both of them, raking a hand back through my brown hair, crisp from the salt water. “This isn’t a game.”
Berach’s smile disappeared, replaced with a solemn expression. “I know.”
Silence fell. A quick glance around showed multiple triangles of mer, ready to defend their home. We were the first line of defense. We turned threats away, the biggest of which were humans. They couldn’t know of our existence, or war was inevitable between us and their bloodthirsty kind.
Because they couldn’t know of our existence, an outright battle to dissuade them from proceeding to Atlantis was inadvisable for obvious reasons. That was why it was the Sirens’ job to turn them away with our voices.
All mer were born with voices that could enchant their listeners, that could create songs that wouldn’t be easily forgotten. Some were more powerful than others. With just a song, some could persuade, destroy, and build. We could convince sharks or humans wondering too close to turn away with the beautiful melodies we sang. Of course, sometimes the threats got too close. They saw us. In those cases, our songs turned deadly. Ships wrecked. Any survivors who managed to make it home weren’t believed when they sputtered stories of half-men half-fish who lured them to their doom with music. They were written off as crazy. And that was the way it had always been and always had to be to protect my people.
Silence reigned. All eyes were on Tide, whose trident was raised in the air. His eyes were fixed on the ship, gauging the distance it was away from us. “Now!” he yelled.
I started singing. My voice mixed with the soprano of Rin’s, and the baritone of Berach’s. Our song combined, twisting around the songs of the others around us. A haunting melody rose in the air, beautiful and terrifying. The goal was to get the ship to turn around, to leave us in peace. I watched closely, and my heart sank when the ship didn’t so much as slow. It kept coming closer. When that happened…
Tide gave the signal and I closed my eyes in a brief wince before forcing the sound of my song to change. No longer haunting, meant to force the humans away. Now it was inviting, coaxing, urging them to come closer, to join us. To drown in their watery graves.
Not that they realized that last part.
As always, our song did its job. The ship got closer and closer, until I could finally see the faces of the humans leaning over the side of the ship, mesmerized. They had a dazed look in their eyes, not realizing and not caring how close they were getting to the sharp sea cliff. Their eyes fixed on us, not seeming to notice as we drifted apart, away from the cliff even as they moved closer toward it.
A flash of red caught my eye, and I halted abruptly, my voice catching. Rin and Berach both looked at me with concern, but neither stopped singing. I stared intently up at the ship. It couldn’t be….
The ship was going to hit the cliff in mere seconds. Everyone on board would drown in the water below. Mermen and mermaids kept singing, but right as I was about to join again, I caught the flash of color once more. Sleek red hair flashing by the prow. Slowly I swam forward, straining my eyes. They flew wide when I recognized the young woman the hair belonged to.
“Stop!” I shouted.
But it was too late. My voice was drowned out in the cacophony of the wooden ship colliding with the rocky sea cliff and splintering. Pieces flew everywhere and I had to dive below the waves to avoid the projectiles. I saw the tails of the other Sirens swimming away, as was routine. Wreck the ship and watch as it crumbled, then clean up the debris with none the wiser. I couldn’t follow them. Not this time. I had to save her.
Panic filled me as I broke the surface, my eyes scanning the chaos. Now that the music had ended and they weren’t under our spell, the humans were screaming, flailing, as they realized their boat was completely destroyed.
I searched the water frantically, catching another flash of red, sinking below the surface. I dove, hurtling through the water. I looked below and found the princess, her dress fluffing out around her as she sank down through the water, clearly unconscious.
I swam toward her, scooping her into my arms and shooting back to the surface with a powerful kick. I was going to get in so much trouble for rescuing her, but there was a part of me that wouldn’t let me swim away. The other people on that ship were going to die, and a pang of guilt hit me. Was there really not a better way to protect my people than to murder others?
I didn’t know, but I did know I had to get the princess away before I was caught, or she woke up and saw me. That was potentially another problem. What if I couldn’t wake her up?
I broke the surface, and the princess followed, but she didn’t gasp for air like she should have. Was she even breathing?
With that thought, I shot off through the waves, toward shore. It took me longer than usual, both because I was carrying her and because I was trying not to go beneath the water. I changed my course after a little while, toward the beach near the human palace. Someone would find her there. The white sand of land came in sight and I swam faster. After a few more minutes, I reached the shore.
I couldn’t leave the water, but I went to the shallowest spot I could and laid the princess on the sand. Her eyes remained closed, her skin unnaturally pale. I knew what to do when someone couldn’t breathe, although I’d never had to do it because of water in someone’s lungs. To mer, water was pretty much the same thing as air.
I tried chest compressions first, then pinched the princess’ nose closed and blew air into her lungs. I repeated the process enough that I lost count of how many times I’d done it. Chest compressions. Pinch nose. Breathe. Nothing worked.
I thought she was dead. I slowed in my attempts to revive her and clenched my jaw in frustration and a strange sort of grief. I blew air into her lungs again, about to give up. But then she gasped, her green eyes flying open as she sat bolt upright. She gave a needy inhale before rolling onto her side and choking out sea water.
When she collapsed, I caught her. Her eyes were shut again, but her chest rose and fell as she breathed, and spots of color had appeared on her pale face. She was alive.
I sat back in relief, brushing her hair away from her face. And then I started to sing. I used my voice to coax her body to heal itself faster, to help her recover. It worked too well.
When I stopped singing, Lily’s vivid green eyes were staring up at me in wonder. It took everything in me not to give an embarrassingly undignified yelp. “That was beautiful,” she said.
I shifted, to make sure my tail wasn’t visible, then turned my attention back to her. “Thank you.”
She tried to sit up, but collapsed again with a groan. She peered at me curiously. “You saved my life. Who are you?”
I shook my head. “No one important.”
She gave a soft snort. “You were pretty important to me.” She raised her hand and I froze as she trailed her fingers down from my forehead to my jaw. “Thank you.”
My head swiveled toward the left when laughter came drifting down the beach. “I told you already, he wasn’t flirting with Lily—he’s much more interested in me.”
“I disagree,” someone else sniffed.
Lily turned in the direction of the voices. I took that as my cue to leave and shoved myself back into the water, swimming away before she could turn her attention toward me again. I didn’t go too far though, and watched as the five young women from that day weeks ago came into view.
They all gasped and one said in shock, “Lily?”
“Your highness!” a guard fell to his knees beside the waterlogged princess and lifted her into his arms. “Your highness, what happened?”
“I’m…not…sure,” she said haltingly. “But he saved me. He—.” She stopped abruptly as she looked around.
“What? Lily, who?” one of the young women asked anxiously.
“I…no one. Nothing.” Lily shook her head slowly, turning away from the sea. She set a hand to her head and closed her eyes, obviously confused. “Nothing.”
The guards helped her to her feet while the other young women clucked and cooed. She looked back out to sea, but I didn’t reappear. She walked away and I swam back under the surface.
I jumped as Rin snapped her fingers in my face. “What is wrong with you? Come on, Torrent, you’ve been distracted for the last week. Do I need Tide to remind you why that’s a bad thing for a Siren?”
I pushed her hands out my face and said irritably, “We’re not on duty right now. It’s fine.”
Berach laughed and folded his arms, pushing a crab away with his tail. “It’s just a girl on his mind, Rin. Torrent’s smitten.” I should have said something, but instead I stood there as Lily’s face came to my mind and let my silence incriminate me. Berach gave a surprised laugh. “You actually are.”
I glared at him. “That isn’t really your business, is it?”
Berach grinned. “Who is it? Do I know her?”
Rin smacked his shoulder. “Cut it out.” But then she turned to me and demanded, “Seriously though, do we know her? Is she from Atlantis?”
I hesitated. Rin and Berach were my best friends. I could trust them. “No…she’s not from Atlantis.”
“One of the neighboring kingdoms?” Rin asked. “Where did you meet her?”
Berach leaned against one of the coral rocks in the park and waved his hand through the water. “He met her at one of the bigwig meetings, obviously. She’s probably a princess.”
“She is a princess,” I said, and Berach made a sound of triumph. “But I didn’t meet her at one of the diplomatic assemblies.”
“So where did you meet her?” Rin asked curiously. “What kingdom is she the princess of?”
“One on land.” The words rushed out of my mouth before I could think better of them. “She’s human.”
For a few seconds, there was silence. Rin’s eyes flew wide and Berach froze mid-smirk. “She’s what?” Berach wanted to know.
“She’s human?” Rin screeched. “You’re infatuated with a human?”
Maybe telling them hadn’t been a good idea. “Could you say that any louder?” I asked Rin, exasperated.
She gave me a ferocious glare that threatened to set the water on fire. “Do you want to find out? Does your mother know?”
I winced and rubbed the back of my neck. “No.”
Rin looked like she was about ready to explode, but Berach stepped in before she could. “Do you love her?”
“I don’t know,” I answered honestly.
“He just can’t help thinking about her all the time,” Rin grumbled. “Some ruler you’ll make if you can’t wait to go to the surface.”
I glared at her, but Berach jumped in again. “You know, one way to figure out if you love her…spend some time with her.”
Rin and I both turned to give him strange looks. “I think I clarified that she’s human, right?” I asked.
“Yeah, and you’re mer. It’s not like you can’t change that.”
The silence was stifling while the possibilities swirled in the air. Rin’s eyes narrowed. “What are you suggesting?”
Berach met my eyes, and for the first time in…well, probably ever…he looked completely serious. “My uncle.”
“He’s banished,” I said flatly. “He engaged in illegal activities. He still dabbles in them now.”
“But he could turn you human temporarily.” Berach raised his hands in the air. “I’m not saying you should do it, but I’m saying it’s an option. How much do you want this?”
“I think you should do it,” Rin said quietly. Berach and I both turned to gape at her. She rolled her eyes. “Oh, come on, he’s breaking the rules either way. Mer and humans don’t mix. So he’ll go to the surface, realize this girl isn’t all that he thinks she is—.”
“Or he’ll fall in love with her,” Berach interjected.
Rin ignored that. “And he’ll come back and no longer be distracted and putting everyone’s lives at risk. Problem solved!”
Berach and Rin both looked to me, waiting. I thought of Lily, and Rin had a point too. I took a breath and nodded. “I need to talk to Uriel. Anyone know where I can find the exiled ex-Siren?”
Berach nodded. “I’ll take you to him.”
Take me to him and no further. “What do you mean you’re not coming in?” I asked incredulously.
Berach was already backing away from the cave. “This is your thing. I brought you here and I’ll help you with the stuff after this, but this part is all you.”
“He’s your uncle!”
“Yeah, he doesn’t really feel family loyalty. He threatened to turn me into sea foam once. Don’t make him mad and you’ll be good.” Berach waved. “Have fun, Torrent!” Then Berach swam off with a flick of his tail before I could stop him, leaving me facing the entrance to the dark cave alone.
“Well, this is cozy,” I muttered. I inched closer, calling, “Uriel?”
There were a few brief moments of silence. Then a smooth voice came from inside the inky darkness, echoing from further back in the cave and sending chills up my spine. “Prince Torrent. To what do I owe this unprecedented visit?”
“I have a favor to ask. I need your help.”
The answering words sounded distinctly amused. “My help? Tell me, is your mother aware of your visit?”
“No,” I admitted. I doubted she’d approve. The first tightening of unease clenched inside my stomach. What was I doing? It was foolish to go to the surface as a human, especially to get to know Lily. But…what if I was meant to stay on the surface and someone else was meant to rule Atlantis?
“Well, come in,” Uriel said impatiently.
An unseen force propelled me inside the cave, even as I tried to scramble backwards. I was pulled through the water until I reached the center of the cave. It glowed with a dim, gray light and was surrounded by shelves full of vials. I stopped moving and looked up in time to see Uriel swim into view.
It had been several years since I’d last seen him, but there was only once noticeable difference. The scales of his tail were pitch black, locked together like metallic armor, where they’d used to be a golden brown color that complimented his dark skin. I had never seen a tail like the one he now sported.
I pulled my eyes away from his tail when he spoke. “What is it you desire, young heir to Atlantis?” Uriel swam closer, trailing his fingers over several vials. “Eternal youth? Love? Destruction of your enemies?”
I pulled myself up straighter. “I need legs.”
Uriel paused. “I feel I must tell you that legs are highly impractical down here.”
“I want you to make me human. I need to go on land.”
Uriel eyed me shrewdly. “That’s a tall order, my prince. Why do you wish to leave your kingdom?”
“There’s a girl I need to get to know.”
Uriel’s lips lifted slightly as he plucked a vial from one of the shelves. “The Princess Lily?”
I blinked. “How did you—?”
Uriel waved a hand. “Do you love her?”
“I’m not sure yet.”
Uriel made a humming sound and picked up another vial. “So you only want to be human temporarily, while you decide if you love her. Is that correct?”
“Yes,” I said, even as a sick, guilty feeling swirled inside me.
“I can make it so that you are human for one cycle of the moon. Kiss your princess and you’ll stay human forever. Otherwise, you’ll turn back into a merman.”
I watched as he mixed the liquids from the vials together. “That’s it?” It sounded too simple.
Uriel shrugged. “That’s how this will work, yes. But this is a large wish, and the larger the wish, the steeper the price.”
“I’ll pay it,” I said instantly.
Uriel chuckled. “You don’t even know what the price is.”
Uriel’s eyes gleamed as he looked over at me. “Your voice.”
I fell back, hitting a wall. “What?”
“Really, not taking your voice would be quite unfair,” Uriel clucked. “Your Siren’s song among the easily persuaded humans? Not that I think you would misuse your gift, but it’s best not to allow you the temptation. So if you want to be human, I’ll need your voice.”
I let out a breath and agreed. “Alright.”
Uriel smiled, but something about the expression made me nervous. “Excellent. Shall we begin?”
A part of me was screaming that I didn’t know what I was getting into, that I couldn’t trust Uriel and his dark powers. But an even bigger part of me was thinking about Lily. Was I making a mistake? I ignored my unease. “Yes. Make me human.”