With a pop, gills opened behind my ears, allowing me to breathe as water rippled across my scale-covered skin. With a final exhale, I pushed out the last of the oxygen, lessening the resistance as we leisurely dove further into the inky depths towards the secret tunnel 1,600 feet down. Gel lenses slipped down over my eyes like goggles, enhancing my night vision and clarity. Our dive—easy for us to traverse—would be impossible for humans without some expensive equipment. Our mer bodies were unaffected by the glacial water and tremendous pressure.
Tatch swam alongside me; her worried thoughts met mine. “Are we getting relocated?”
I smirked, trying to keep our internal conversation from gaining mom’s attention. Mer twins often had mind-talking abilities. “Stop overreacting. If whatever Azor asks is going to move us away from here, Dad will decline like last time. Maybe he has to go somewhere and I’ll get to guard Tahoe in his place.”
“You? Why would they pick you?” She clutched her charm bracelet that held her most prized possession—a tiny vial filled with a blue colored liquid—the essence of our life.
“I’d be the most logical choice,” I said indignantly.
“Yeah, right. First of all you’re not old enough and second, you’re single.”
“Nothing but technicalities.”
Though the prospect of a bigger assignment when I got older was tempting, following in my father’s footsteps and freedom apart from the colony appealed to me more. I just needed a chance to prove myself.
Tatch turned towards me, tilting her head. “You could come with me and Ash to college you know.”
Tatch’s response bitterly sliced through my excitement; I spouted out with internal laughter. “Ridiculous.”
She looked downward towards our destination. “No. What’s ridiculous is how they make it seem like you control your destiny when you don’t. This huge honor is just a disguise for a huge crap sandwich. Your life will always belong to the King and the rest of the Council. Luckily, Dad has groomed you specifically for this territory by setting up Captain Jack’s, giving you some sort of freedom. But you’ll still be owned by them and at any time, like now, they could take it from you. You know it and so do I.”
“Have you forgotten Dad is actually on the Council? He’d never let that happen.”
We looked at each other for a moment—my twin, my little sister by five minutes. If she actually chose to leave us, to go to college and live “normally,” the consequences meant erasing her memories and starting afresh as a human. People killed for our secrets and she was throwing it all away to be normal. No one in their right mind ever chose to leave.
I clenched my jaw. “I doubt you’ll be able to go through with it.”
“Don’t make this harder than it needs to be.”
I gulped down my emotion and shook my head. How could she act as if our family didn’t mean anything to her? That our memories deserved to be heaved into a dumpster bin? The thought of losing her forever tore me apart the day she’d mentioned the prospect of college. Of course the decision would be easy for her to make—not having to feel the pain of losing the ones she loved. But I’d never do that to Mom and Dad, or to her.
I gritted my teeth. “You get the good end of the bargain.”
“We’ve talked about this before. With the colony, there’s no certainty. Dad’s protection only goes so far. The King still has expectations. Leaving is my only choice,” she said matter-of-factly.
“You could go to school close by. You don’t have to leave leave.”
“You just don’t get it,” Tatiana swam a little faster. “They’d still own me.”
I gritted my teeth and silently followed behind. She was technically right. Everything could change after tonight. But I highly doubted we’d be leaving for good.
A statue of Tessie, Tahoe’s Loch Ness monster, loomed in the dark as a joke, but ironically was a door to the meeting room. Mom felt under the statue’s neck for the lever. As the statue’s jaw lowered, the water undulated around us, disturbing the blind shrimp and other sea life. They scurried away as we swam through her mouth into the ante-chamber.
“This sucks, Fin.”
“It’ll be okay,” I said, still hopeful I’d get my big chance to guard the gate.
Upon breaching the surface of the flooded cave, my heart barreled in anticipation of what could happen within the next few minutes. Bluish lighting—native to our world—danced across the abalone-encrusted ceiling, brightly illuminating the two-hundred square foot space. The cave, originally just a tunnel bridging Tahoe to Natatoria, was carved out by Dad to become a place for the Council to meet, far away from prying ears in the palace. A colorful mural of our city, inlayed with gems and shells, covered the main wall. I hadn’t seen it yet and was blown away by the detail Dad had incorporated.
But to my disappointment, not only were Dad and Azor in attendance, Uncle Alaster and Colin were, too. Why would they be here?
Dad motioned for us to join them at the large granite slab that appeared to be floating in the center of the room. I swam up first and wedged my tail into one of the eight L shaped seats carved into the slab’s ledge under the waterline, across from Uncle Alaster and Colin.
Azor, son of King Phaleon and second in command of the army, sat at the head of the table with his slicked back hair and cocky smile. His calculating dark eyes watched as we chose our seats. Mom took the spot between Dad and Colin, leaving a seat next to Azor and the one between Dad and I open.
“Tatiana, don’t you look lovely. Please. Sit here,” Azor said, ogling her blatantly, making my skin crawl.
She smiled, but chose the other seat.
“Ugh,” Tatch groaned ever so slightly once she settled in. Out of the water, we couldn’t mind-talk but I could imagine what she was thinking about Azor and what he could do with the seat next to him.
“Now that we are all here, we can start the meeting. Nice to see everyone,” Azor spoke in our native tongue. The blue light gleamed off his white teeth as his glance darted across the attendees. “Let’s get down to business.”
Mom shifted in her seat. Of all the merpeople here, she was the only beta-mer: a human changed into a mer. That fact made her cower in the presence of the pure-born, the native tongue still difficult for her to speak without an accent.
Azor cleared his throat before starting. “First, I have to congratulate you, Jack, for your vigilance at the Tahoe Passage. Things have been peaceful and the rumors you’ve spread have been effective in containing curiosity.”
“Well done, Brother,” Alaster said, waggling his white eyebrows and giving a golf clap.
Dad nodded, keeping his posture stiff. He and his younger brother rarely saw eye to eye, especially with matters surrounding how to handle Tahoe.
Tatch sighed next to me as if to say “what a kiss-ass.” I bit my lip to refrain from laughing.
“So,” Azor said quickly, “that situation up North we discussed in the Council meeting has escalated. Jack, we need your expertise and advice after all. The King was hoping you wouldn’t mind leaving your responsibilities in the hands of Alaster and helping us out.”
I glanced at Uncle Al. His smirk under his white beard made my stomach flip. Why would they be allowing him to oversee again after the disaster last time? We still hadn’t fully overcome the rumor mill over the fire and near sinking of the Empress. He was the last person I wanted in charge of our lake or our business. In quiet alarm, I waited for Dad to object, to insist I stay to protect Tahoe and run things in his absence.
“If that’s what the King wishes, ” Dad said to my dismay, “of course.”
“Great. And then, as far as the family—”
I swallowed hard and clenched my jaw. Uncle Al taking over the lake? The last thing I wanted was to share living quarters with them.
“—Finley and Tatiana are having their eighteenth birthday soon, correct?”
Mom folded her hands on the table top. “Yes.”
Azor smiled wide. “Perfect. The Coming of Age festival is less than a month away and there is much to prepare. We’ll just have you stay in Natatoria for the time being. Have any prospects of promising been voiced?”
Tatiana hit her tail against mine. I kept a straight face.
“Not unless it’s happened within the last hour,” Dad said with a smile. “We’re allowing Fin and Tatiana to choose, you know.”
Azor’s countenance fell. “Well . . . hopefully they’ll find suitable mates before the festival.”
From my peripheral vision, I noticed Tatch close her eyes, as if she’d sent up a silent prayer of thanks.
“Fine then,” Azor continued. “Magdalene, you and Tatiana will be assigned to the palace to help prepare for the upcoming festival. Finley, I’d like you to join me in my command. One day, you might be given an actual gate of your own to guard so it’s important you’re trained.”
Trained? Was he kidding? I’d been guarding the gate with Dad from the day I could swim. Maybe if he got off his pompous fin and actually spoke from experience instead of barking orders from his dad, I’d respect him. I bit back my retort once I caught Dad’s cautious eye.
“As you wish, Azor,” I said begrudgingly but shot a pleading look back. Dad still had time to suggest I stay in Tahoe in his place.
Dad kept a mask of strength and nodded his head. “I’m proud of you, Son.”
“Excellent. Now that that’s settled, I’d like to speak to Jack and Alaster alone. We have details to discuss.” Azor raised his arm, directing us—the outcasts—toward the shimmering waterway in the opposite corner of the room. The tunnel leading to the city of Natatoria.
Dread crept across my scales. Our “convenient” assignments brought us right under the nose of the King. We’d have to fall in line and follow their rituals. No more jaunts on land for the time being. But the worst part was Dad’s assignment.
What possibly could be happening up North that would shake him so badly? He’d never arbitrarily leave Alaster in charge of Tahoe and ditch us to deal with things like a pre-promising festival if there wasn’t something big happening. Whatever the situation, though he tried to hide it, I’d never seen him so concerned before. When would we see him again? I suddenly didn’t want him to go without me.
Tatiana responded to the gravity of the situation first and wrapped her arms around his neck. “Bye, Daddy.”
He patted her on the back and his gruff exterior crumbled a bit. “You take care of your mother. I’ll be home soon.”
Mom forced a smile and hugged my father next, but for much longer.
“When will you be home?” she asked quietly in English, caressing his face with her hands.
Azor interjected, answering to prove he understood her. “A few weeks, Magdalene. We’ll take good care of Jack. It’ll be difficult, but of anyone I know, you two can handle it.”
Ignoring Azor, Dad hugged Mom and caressed her hair. “I love you,” he said, distress lining his tanned face. “Always know that.” They shared a tender kiss.
Anger burned in my belly. The fact that the King and his son had such control over us irked me. All the expectations sent a dagger into my chest. I wanted to jump up and demand Dad decline the mission. The whole thing reeked of danger. He shouldn’t have to feel obligated to go if he didn’t want to. What happened to the man who fought for his family? For honor? For what was right?
“Colin, stay close by. We’ll start our stay in Tahoe tonight,” Uncle Al said while my parents continued their goodbyes.
After several minutes, Mom reluctantly let go of Dad and joined everyone in front of the exit portal. Down the tunnel was a world I enjoyed visiting, but didn’t want to live in. Colin dove into the glistening doorway first, making a big splash.
Tatch growled and wiped the water off her face. I didn’t care. I had to know what was going on. I stalled, hoping to catch a snippet of conversation. But Azor stayed tight lipped, waiting for everyone to leave. Mom and Tatch finally disappeared underwater and I could no longer avoid the inevitable.
“Don’t worry, Son,” Mom said quietly as we swam towards our world. “Everything will work out.”
I wanted to believe her.
Upon entry, our beautiful city wrapped me into its arms as the melodic songs of our people filled the void in my soul I often tried to ignore on land. I’d forgotten how enchanting our kind can be when you’d been away for so long. Located in between the ocean floor and the earth’s mantle, the mers lived in harmony far away from the knowledge of man.
Light blue larimar lined the ceiling of our endless enclosure, giving the illusion of the sky. Above us hung one of many crystal balls that daily reflected beams of sunlight streamed in from pipes containing strategically placed mirrors. Tonight with only a half moon in Tahoe illuminating the sky, the ball was dim. Instead, light from trapped lava under gel-covered domes ricocheted out like a roaring campfire from the center of our colony. Structures of gold and silver, decorated with gems of every color, towered out of the reef in a circular pattern, reflecting the warm hue. In the distance, the palace loomed, teeming with excited merlife, enjoying their evening. If there was a heaven on earth, this was it—complete with streets of gold.
I inhaled the briny water and hummed. Tahoe’s fresh water pulled all the minerals from our skin, leaving our scales void of color, but the salt content was far richer here than our melted-snow fed lake. Silver and emerald streaked down my tail, as if someone turned on a light switch under my scales. My fin was the last to fill with red and orange.
“I think waiting around might be a mistake,” Mom mumbled, her accent in mer tongue prominent. “Tatiana, let’s go.”
Tatch frowned. Her tail, too, had changed color: blue, pink, and purple. Her hair floated in the water, framing her head in a golden halo. I had to agree with Mom, but for my own reasons. The quicker Tatch put distance between her and Azor, the better.
“Fin, this is exactly what I was worried about and I don’t want to go to the castle without you, around all those uncultured sea serpents.”
“Just play nice for now. I’ll see you later. We’ll get back to the mainland soon.”
“We’d better, or else.”
She gave Colin, who seemed to be shamelessly checking out her tail, one last sneer.
“You look nice,” he responded.
“Mermen are pigs,” she spouted only to me.“Yeah, whatever. Let’s go, Mom.”
“Feisty.” Colin chuckled and watched Tatiana leave.
I punched him in the chest. “Knock it off. You’re her cousin.”
“How does that matter?”
I rolled my eyes but everything in me wanted to beat the crap out of him. I gritted my teeth and counted to ten.
“You’re going to lose the lake, you know. Your family has been getting a little too friendly with the humans and someone finally noticed. Maybe if you’d have stopped acting like you’re better than everyone else and lived with the pure-born, you’d get to keep it.”
“I’m not an idiot, Colin. Don’t you have something you need to do?”
“Like move in? Yup. Just waiting on Dad.”
I smirked, wishing I could be there to witness his disappointment when he broke into my room and couldn’t find any of my stuff. But at the mention of our dads, I wondered what took mine so long. I wanted to at least talk to him before he left, see if I could come along.
I leaned up against the rock face and flipped my tail, disturbing the sand. Having fins in the water was useful to travel quickly, but the bulky appendage left much to be desired for exerting dominance. Something about being unable to sit, legs open, left me feeling feminine.
“You’re going to be Azor’s pet now,” Colin said.
I looked away, ignoring his bait to argue.
“He’ll do anything to get in good with the twin. He’s set his sights on Tatiana and he gets what he wants.”
“My sister gets to choose who she wants to marry.”
“Marry?” Colin belly laughed. “She’s gonna pick a human, huh? That’s gonna go over real well—”
Crap. “Promise. Marry. Whatever. Weren’t you just in there? She gets to choose. Or has the King turned on its people and changed the law?”
“Don’t get your barnacles in a bunch. I’m just saying.”
He ran his hand under a rock and pulled out a crawfish. With his razor-sharp teeth, he ripped out a huge chunk of flesh from its tail. “Man, is this going to take all day?”
I scrubbed my hand over my face. It was hard enough to find out my uncouth cousin would be messing up my room, but what kind of mission required so many details?
Dad’s reputation obviously landed him the job. He was respected on the Council and among his peers, even though he lived outside of the walls, and was married and promised to a beta-mer.
Where is he?
“Thanks, Jack,” Azor said, exiting the tunnel first, while clapping my dad on the back. “I knew I could count on you. Go ahead and assemble your team.” He turned towards Colin with a slightly annoyed look. “Alaster is waiting for you.”
“Awesome,” Colin said, tossing his half eaten crustacean into the current. “Bye, Cuz.” He shot me a mischievous look right before disappearing through the darkened Tahoe gate.
“So?” I asked, expecting to hear he was putting me on his team.
My father looked over my shoulder and raised his eyebrows at Azor. “Is that all?”
“Then, I’d like a private word with my son. I’ll have him join you momentarily.”
“Sure thing, Jack.” Azor formed his lips in a straight line. “Finley, meet me on the south side of the palace when you are finished.”
“Yeah,” I said and watched Azor leave, thankful I didn’t have to follow his orders. Little did he know, I’d be leaving with my dad. “So what’s going on and when do we leave?”
“Son—” Dad put his hand on my shoulder. “We’ve had an incident and unfortunately, I can’t risk taking you.”
“What? Why not?”
“I want to bring you—” Lines of concern pressed grooves into the skin around his eyes. “Just trust me this time. I need you here with the girls. Besides, how bad can it be working with Azor? He’ll help you improve your skills.”
“Why can’t I come with you? I don’t understand.”
“I—I’ll tell you why when I get back.”
He pressed his hand on my shoulder, but his words didn’t convince me.
“This doesn’t make sense.”
“I know. Please, Fin. Trust me.” He ran his hand through his hair and grimaced.
“Do we have to stay here? Can we go to the lake house instead?”
Dad looked away. “Your mom isn’t allowed to be there without me. You know the rules.”
The rules. Mermaids weren’t trusted outside of a merman’s protection. Their powers of seduction might get the better of them, causing loads of trouble and risk of exposure.
“But Alaster is there and I’m almost eighteen.”
“Maybe if you were, you could, but not this time.”
I swallowed my pride and pretended the rejection didn’t hurt. He could take me if he really wanted.
“Son, I need to go assemble my team. Thank you for understanding.”
He grabbed me and hugged me hard. Then with a flick of his powerful red tail, Dad disappeared into the folds of the city. He had men to recruit and apparently my stupid birth date prevented me from making the cut—still a boy in his eyes. My chest ached with fury. I wanted to be anywhere but here, trapped in the center of the earth with idiots like Azor. Why wasn’t I born a couple of months sooner?
Tatiana was right. My situation was a huge crap sandwich.