The Stranger

The Stranger

illustration by goni montes

The Syrena don’t trust many humans. Rachel is one of them. The story of how Galen met her—and how they bonded—is both exciting and heartbreaking.

This novelette was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Feiwel & Friends editor Elizabeth  Szabla.

Galen dangles the necklace in front of his sister, swirling tidbits of seaweed in the water around them. “This is mine,” he tells her, shaking it closer to Rayna’s face. “If you take it again, I’ll tell Father about all your human treasures.”

Rayna crosses her arms, her sleek silver fin twitching in irritation—the brunt of which she turns on Toraf, their best friend. “What kind of Tracker pupil are you?” she demands. “You didn’t sense that he was in my cave? Stealing my things?”

Galen is careful to hide his grin. Toraf knew he was in Rayna’s precious cave of human relics. Not because Toraf is training to be a Tracker—and a promising one at that. No, Toraf didn’t have to sense Galen creeping around in Rayna’s treasure trove. Because Toraf was with him the whole time.

“Leave Toraf out of this,” Galen drawls. “He’s still learning his Tracker skills.” He can tell Toraf doesn’t like him minimizing his abilities, but he’s not quite proud enough to admit his involvement in this matter, so he keeps his mouth shut. Like a good minnow. “Besides,” Galen continues, “Toraf is my best friend. Why would he tell you anything?”

Rayna grabs Toraf’s forearm and pulls him to her. Toraf grimaces, torn between the pleasure of being pulled toward the Triton princess and the pain of being put in the middle yet again.

“He is not!” Rayna insists. “Tell him, Toraf. Tell him you’re my best friend.”

The scowl Toraf gives Galen brims with indecision. Galen doesn’t sympathize. The choice is obvious. Toraf can nurture his romantic feelings for Rayna when the time is more appropriate—which won’t be for five more seasons, when they all turn eighteen. “That’s not the point,” Galen drawls. “The point is, you stole this necklace from me and I stole it back.”

Toraf’s expression relaxes as Rayna’s attention shifts from him to her twin brother. Galen knows the look on her face so well. She’s changing tactics. The anger recedes, replaced by a tide of sadness. Or at least, a good imitation of sadness. “You should have given it to me,” she says. “You knew I wanted it since we found it. How selfish can you be?”

I found it,” Galen says pleasantly. “It was the only thing I found on that old wreck. I can’t help that it was the best. You swam away with almost more than you could carry. I think you’re the one being selfish.”

Rayna’s lower lip juts out and threatens to quiver. “I’m the one who got it all cleaned up and shiny again. It didn’t look half as nice when you had it.”

Galen holds up the necklace, allowing all of Rayna’s hard work to glisten as he turns it in the fingers of afternoon sunlight stretching down at them from the surface. Before, he thought the medallion was plain, a bare gilt disc on the end of a handsome braid of gold. Beautiful, but simple. Now he sees the outline of a human symbol—one he’s seen before in the Cave of Memories. Two lines intersecting each other in the middle. Other symbols dance around it, fine carvings outlining tiny colored rocks around the rim. Some are possibly the marks of human words, though Galen can’t make out a single letter Romul taught him. That could be because Rayna has restored the thing to within an inch of its life. Such great care she took in polishing off the green crust of many seasons in the belly of the great ship. With the layers of green she’d also kneaded away the outside markings.

Galen has no idea what the lines mean; the subject had yet to come up with his mentor, Romul, during his lessons in the Cave of Memories. But the Cave of Memories is vast, and the collective memory of Archives like Romul is even more so. Romul would not need to see the necklace to know what the symbols mean. Which is a very good thing, since Father will wear a whelt in my fin if he finds out I explored a human shipwreck—and especially if he finds out I let Rayna come with me.

Galen grins at his sister. “Thanks. It looks great.” He pulls the necklace on. The medallion takes up a large portion of his chest, the weight of it resting against his heartbeat.

Rayna clenches her teeth. His sister is lovely, Galen knows, but when she clenches her teeth she looks like an agitated puffer fish. “I’ll trade you. Anything you want in my cave.”

“Not a chance.”

Rayna grabs Toraf’s hand, instantly setting him on edge. “Toraf, tell him. Tell him that I need that necklace. Tell him how hateful it is for him to keep it.”

Toraf turns on Galen, writhing under Rayna’s scrutiny. “Come on, tadpole. It’s her favorite treasure. And truth be told, it looks ridiculous on you. Very feminine.”

“Your fin is feminine.” Galen shrugs. “I’m keeping it. That’s final.” At least for now. Who knows what Rayna will be willing to do for it? He’d be an idiot to give up such a valuable bartering tool so early in what he knows will be an entertaining game. He could make her dig for some tasty oysters. Or net his favorite kind of tuna—which can only be found in Poseidon territory. Or better yet, he could trade it for peace and quiet. A day off from his sister sounds very tempting right about now. Right about always.

But that doesn’t mean he has to flit around wearing it like a prissy human. Toraf is right; he does look ridiculous. Galen turns to swim away, fighting the urge to take it off. “It’s a necklace,” he says, almost to himself. “It was made to be worn.”

Despite Rayna’s protesting growls, Galen keeps swimming. He senses Toraf following him. Normally he would stop and wait for him to catch up. But Toraf is currently enchanted by his sister; he’d just try to take back the very thing he helped Galen find only days ago. His mightfriend is loyal, but sometimes his heart betrays him.

Galen stops. Toraf stops, too. Rayna didn’t follow; she obviously trusts Toraf to do her bidding. Which irritates Galen even more.

“It means more to her than it does to you,” Toraf says quietly. “Why can’t she have it?”

“I’ll eventually give it to her. Just not right now.”

“She did work hard on making it shine.”

Galen raises a brow. He’s seen his older brother Grom do this, and it always makes him look more intimidating. “You should have thought about that before you helped me take it.”

Toraf grimaces. “Well. I’m taking it back.” He eases toward Galen.

“Obviously you’ve grown too accustomed to the luxury of teeth, tadpole,” Galen says, “if you think you’re going to swim over here and take it from around my neck.”

Toraf considers.

“Besides, if you even try, I’ll tell Rayna you helped me. And I’ll tell Father where her cave is.”

“You wouldn’t.”

No, he definitely wouldn’t. His sister might be infinitely annoying, but those human things have been one of the few sources of happiness for her since their mother died. Galen would never take that from her.

Still, it doesn’t hurt to give Toraf something to think about. Plus there’s the issue of actually catching Galen. True, Toraf’s fin is bigger than Galen’s. But the young Tracker knows Galen is faster. So fast that Toraf knows his time is better spent comforting Rayna than chasing a tail that will soon be out of sight.

Galen can see from his friend’s expression that the disagreement has been stalled for another time. He takes the opportunity to leave, the necklace getting heavier with each flick of his fin. But somehow he suspects that the weight is wrapped more around his conscience than his neck.

 

Galen makes the familiar journey around the tip of the Long Land and into the warm waters of what his only human friend, Dr. Milligan, calls the Gulf of Mexico. He’s eager to show Dr. Milligan his find. He decided that it would be better to show Dr. Milligan the necklace than to tell Romul about it. After all, Dr. Milligan is a human. He should know what the markings on the necklace mean. Why risk raising Romul’s curiosity—or worse, suspicion—with incriminating questions?

Just as Galen assures himself that he’s being terribly clever, he hears the approach of a boat on the surface. From beneath, he can see the deep dips and tall swells of the waves topside. The boat is moving dangerously fast, especially for its size and especially this far from shore where the waves can be punishing. Sometimes the belly of it disappears altogether, then crashes down hard on the surface. These humans are in a hurry.

Right when he thinks the boat will pass, it slows, then stops altogether. Galen presses himself into the murky sand, spooking a few crabs and a hiding flat fish in the process. Galen doesn’t have to wait long before the humans reveal their intentions.

And they do the unthinkable.

The splash is a big one, not caused by an anchor or a net or a crab cage or the chum they throw overboard to attract fish. It’s the splash of a human. Not a diver. Not a swimmer. Not a surfer. A human who is tied to a big chunk of square rock. A human who has a silver patch of something over her mouth to muffle her screams.

A human who has been thrown away.

The hum of the boat starts up again, and it speeds away. It disappears as quickly as it arrived.

Galen watches in horror as the human female wriggles like a caught fish, sinking farther and farther and farther. Her arms are tied behind her back. Her legs tied together. She can’t kick, she can’t flail. All she can do is scream and squirm and scream some more.

Which is exactly what she shouldn’t be doing. Dr. Milligan said humans can’t hold their breath very long. He remembers when he first met Dr. Milligan. The big metal thing on his back gave him air so he could breathe underwater.

This human does not have a big metal thing on her back.

This human is going to drown.

And Galen can’t let that happen. Won’t. He knows the law: It forbids contact with humans. But he’s broken that law countless times already. He was about to break it just now, showing Dr. Milligan the necklace.

So, he surges toward her, leaving the murk swirling in his wake. He gives his immediate attention to the patch on her mouth. If she speaks the same human language as Dr. Milligan, maybe she can help him figure out how to save her.

He tears it off and she cries out. She looks as if she’s going to say something, but stops herself. Then her eyes get very, very wide. Galen wonders if he’s made a mistake in helping. By showing himself to this human whom he doesn’t know. But the last time he helped a human—Dr. Milligan—it turned out for the good.

But for the good or for the bad, he can’t watch this human die. Not if he can help it. He pulls at the knots binding her. They’re strong, tight. His skin is not yet as thick as an adult Syrena’s, so the flesh on his fingers starts to seep blood from pulling too hard.

For her part, the human holds still. She seems to understand he’s trying to help. And she’s going to let him. In fact, she seems to have calmed down. That’s when Galen realizes that she’s not calming down at all.

She’s losing consciousness. When she does, her body will forget how to breathe. And she will drown.

Galen wraps his arms around her, hugging her to him. Then he heads for the surface. The power of his fin he normally uses for speed is now pushed to its limits just to move because of the rocks tied to her feet. Progress is slow, but they finally make it to the surface.

The human’s eyes are closed.

No. Without thinking, Galen gives her cheek a stout slap. This revives her. She coughs saltwater into his face, which is possibly the most unpleasant thing he’s ever experienced. He figures they are even now, since he did slap her, after all.

“Are you drowned?” he asks.

She answers with more coughing. It’s difficult to keep her head above the waves with the added weight tied beneath them. “I have to get these knots untied,” he tells her.

Finally she speaks. Her voice is hoarse, faint. “I have a knife in my boot.”

Galen blinks. “A knife?” He’s not sure what that is. Or, for that matter, what a boot is.

She seems to understand his lack of understanding. In fact, she seems very calm about everything that’s happening to her now. As if being saved by a Syrena were a normal occurrence. “It’s with my feet. It can cut through the rope.”

Galen nods. “We have to go back under. I can’t hold you up and get your knife at the same time.”

She nods. A piece of her dark hair is stuck to her cheek and in the corner of her mouth, making her look like she’s been hooked. “Let me take a big breath first.” She proceeds to take several big breaths. “I’m ready,” she says finally. But before he dips under, she says, “Thank you. Just in case this doesn’t work out and all. Thank you for trying.”

It will work out, Galen wants to tell her. But he doesn’t know if it will.

 

Galen has never been so glad to see land in his life. The Long Land would have been a short trip for him if he were by himself. If he didn’t have a pair of human arms wrapped around his neck barely holding on, a human body sagging against his back, the raspy sound of a human’s unsteady breathing in his ear. Several times that raspy sound stopped and he’d had to make sure she was still alive. Even now, he doubts she will make it. Even with his thick skin he can feel how cool her body has become.

And she can’t stop shaking.

The setting sun lights their way to the shallow water. Galen reaches around and carefully pulls the human to the front of him. “I think the water is shallow enough for you to stand.” The powerful muscle in his fin unravels, and his human legs snap and twist into shape beneath him. Instinctively, his feet anchor into the sand, ankle deep. The gentle waves lap at his high waist; if he’s judged her height correctly, her head should reach his shoulder when standing.

She nods, but Galen can tell that her ability to stand has nothing to do with the depth of the water. Instead of releasing her, he pulls her all the way on shore. She lies on her back, her sticky black hair salted with the sand on the beach. Her breaths come in short wheezes.

She digs her feet into the sand. “Th-th-thank you,” she says, her teeth chattering so hard she might shatter them out of her head.

Galen looks at her for a long time. He should go. He should dive back into the surf and swim all the way to the Royal Caverns and tell his father what he’s done. “I’m going to make a fire,” he tells her.

He can’t tell if she nods in reply or if the shaking is just that uncontrollable. He searches the area for acceptable brush and sticks, endlessly thankful that his brother Grom has already taught him how to make a fire. Syrena tradition does not allow for that lesson until a male is old enough to choose a mate. Together the couple chooses an island, and after their mating ceremony, the male builds a fire for his new companion. A symbol of his devotion to her. Then they would . . . well, they would mate.

Galen grimaces, wondering if humans have the same custom. Does this female human think I want to mate with her? First I save her, then I bring her to land and build her a fire. What must she be thinking right now?

Just in case, he finds some trees with flat pointy leaves and fashions himself a covering. Dr. Milligan warned him to always wear what the humans call “shorts” before coming ashore. He’d even given him a few pairs of them to hide in the sand around the Gulfarium for when he visits. These were no shorts, but they would have to do. Surely she would not mistake his intentions now. A male would not hide himself from his mate.

At least, he didn’t think he would . . .

 

The fire licks the early morning sky, a sky still dark enough to cast an exotic dance of light and shadow on the stranger’s face as she sleeps fitfully. She has stopped shaking and her clothes are half-dry, but she’s oblivious to her improved condition. All through the night she cried out, thrashing and wailing. He told himself over and over that her nightmares would subside. That he shouldn’t involve himself any further with this human, that his only purpose for staying was to make sure she lived through the night, nothing more.

When she awoke, they would part ways.

But when she’d started screaming, “Help me!” he had no choice but to intervene. The commotion could attract other humans. She was in no shape to fend for herself if others of her kind decided to finish the job they’d started at sea. And Galen was in no mood to have all his hard work undone so easily. He’d slid behind her in the sand, wrapped his arms around her. Back and forth he’d rocked her, just like his mother had done to him when his nightmares seemed to jump from his imagination and into his sleeping cave with him.

He doubted his nightmares could compare to the dreams tormenting this stranger. He figured it would be selfish not to comfort her when he could do so with hardly any effort. The most impressive part of her was her overwhelming mess of black hair. Knotted in some places, curly in others, falling in no particular order except for everywhere. Other than that, this human was small. It would be so easy to scoop her up and rock her until she stopped whimpering. To whisper words of comfort in her ear until she stopped thrashing. To hold her until her terrors drowned in the security of deep sleep.

So he did.

Looking at her now from across the fire, Galen doesn’t regret his involvement. Sure, his eyes are heavy and his stomach is empty and his legs itch to feel the saltwater stretch and twist them into his powerful fin. But Galen remembers her eyes. How frightened and childish her dark eyes had looked when she’d first seen him. He has to see those eyes again. He’d decided this during the night, during one of her more violent nightmares. He has to know what her eyes look like when they aren’t brimming with terror.

As unreasonable as it sounds, Galen wants to be sure she’ll be okay. Not just that she wakes up, or breathes, or keeps food and water down. Those are all good signs, of course, but they’re not enough. Even the simplest creatures of the sea can do those mindless, effortless things. They do it without joy or feeling or emotion. They do it in order to exist. But Galen wants more from this tiny woman than that. For some reason, he wants to know that she’ll not only exist, but that she’ll actually live, be happy again.

Galen pokes the fire with the long stick he found. What if she never was happy in the first place, idiot? An even better question would be, why do you care?

But it’s not enough to make him get up. Instead, he pokes some more until some of the thick twigs and beach grass collapse, causing some of the fresh brush he’d put on top to sizzle.

It’s the sizzling that wakes her. Her eyes open and find his immediately. Galen feels like an upright icicle, frozen in place, somehow waiting for her permission to move, to thaw. To do anything other than stare back at her. She doesn’t torture him for long, though.

She sits up and stretches, giving him a rueful smile that doesn’t reach the depth of her dark eyes. Still, there’s something more than mere existence pooled in those dark orbs, in that guarded smile. Yes, there’s overwhelming sadness. But Galen figures she has plenty to be sad about. Who would be ecstatic to have been thrown away by your own species? Galen can take the sadness.

Because there’s something else in her eyes—strength. Not only that, but calculation. He can tell her thoughts are piercing the future, sizing up the situation, making plans.

Oh yes. Even now she studies him, her face tilted to the side as she works to make her hair more manageable. He wonders why she doesn’t just cut the mess off. But he doesn’t figure he’s qualified to talk about it with her.

“Good morning,” she says.

He nods.

“Did you make this fire?”

Again he nods. The little woman seems to be getting impatient. Galen wonders if females of all species share this particular trait.

“I know you can talk,” she says.

He stands. “I’m going to go get us something to eat. Do you like fish?” Galen is starving, but then, a growing Syrena always is.

She blinks up at him, letting her gaze linger on the gold necklace still draped on his chest. He wonders what she’s thinking. He resists the urge to cover the medallion with his hand. Would she be foolish enough to try to take it? Does she know what it is? He doesn’t know the nature of humans all that well, but he’s well acquainted with greed—he sees it on Rayna’s face all the time. This human does not have greed in her eyes.

She clears her throat and gives him a weak smile. “I happen to love fish.”

Galen can’t decide if her words carry a double meaning. This human might be more than he bargained for. “I’ll be right back.”

He walks down the beach, far enough away that she can’t see him remove his covering in the darkness. When he dives in the water and his fin twists into shape, he sighs in relief. It feels good to stretch, to get the sticky beach sand off of him, to feel lighter. On land, he feels like a rock with legs sometimes. So heavy and slow. Down here, he feels like part of the current, moving without effort, turning with ease.

Drifting with the morning tide, he makes half-hearted attempts to be as fast as his prey. In the distance he hears a pod of dolphins scaring up their morning meal and considers joining them. But dolphins are too fast for him to follow after such a long night. He decides crab might be the best choice, since he has no net and no bait and no energy. Capturing crabs requires stillness and patience. Two things Galen is more than willing to give right now.

As his hand closes around a retreating crab claw, he senses Toraf’s pulse. Worse than that, he senses Rayna’s. And they’re heading straight for him. Just perfect.

Getting out of the water would be pointless now that Toraf has focused in on his pulse. Besides, with Toraf’s Tracking skills, he sensed Galen long before Galen sensed him. Galen doesn’t care that his friend found him—in fact, he could use his input in this especially weird situation—but why did Toraf have to bring Rayna?

Why, why, why?

After re-donning his palm branch covering, Galen sits on shore and waits, scraping the rest of the raw flesh from the crab shell in his hands. He’ll have to find more to cook over the fire for the human stranger. It’s not likely she’ll have a taste for anything live.

When Toraf and Rayna surface, Galen waves them over.

Toraf stands over him, close enough to drip saltwater on his legs. “You’re still wearing that necklace, minnow? And why are you all covered up with plants?”

Galen runs a hand through his hair. “I didn’t have time to take the necklace off. What I mean is, I didn’t have time to put it anywhere.” It occurs to Galen that the two were following him for just that reason—hoping he’d try to hide the necklace so they could steal it back. This game could last for an entire season if he let it.

Rayna crosses her arms. “Sure you did. You had time to make a net for yourself out of palm branches.”

“It’s not a net, and I only made it because . . .” Galen stands. “Come see what I’m talking about.”

The sunrise creeps quickly beside the surf, but there’s still enough darkness to clearly see the illumination ahead of them. The closer they get to the fire the more antsy Toraf gets. When he sees the stranger nestled in the sand beyond the flames, his eyes nearly bulge out of his face. “You’re mating with a human?”

Rayna gasps. “Mating? You’re only thirteen seasons old, Galen!”

“How stupid can you be, minnow?”

“Did you make the fire or did she?” Rayna asks.

Toraf’s eye get wider. “Did you already . . . you know . . . ?”

Galen rolls his eyes. “Triton’s trident, will you two shut your blowholes? We. Are not. Mating. I saved her from drowning, squid breath. I stayed with her last night to make sure she was going to live.” Well, mostly.

“Oh, they generally die right away when they’ve drowned,” Toraf explains. “She’ll definitely live.”

Galen snorts. “Is that right? Maybe you could tell me what they eat. Since you’ve decided she’ll live.”

Toraf nods in all seriousness. “Humans eat sand. That’s why they spend so much time on land.”

Before Galen can answer, a flash of light reflects in Toraf’s eyes. “Who’s there?” a voice calls from behind them. The human stranger has lit a stick with the fire and is closing the distance between them. Galen is surprised she had the strength to finally stand. Maybe she’ll live after all. “Is that you . . . Uh, I guess I don’t really know your name,” she says. “Little boy?”

Little boy? Toraf mouths to Galen.

Galen shrugs and pushes past his friend and his sister. “It’s me,” he calls back. “And . . . some of my friends have come also.”

“Oh nice,” Rayna hisses. “Now we’re all breaking the law.”

“Since when did you care about the law,” Galen says over his shoulder. He meets the stranger halfway.

“Oh. There you are,” she says. “Did you find anything edible? I’d give my big toe for a pizza. And my whole foot for a bottle of water.”

Galen’s not sure what a pizza is, but the fact that she’s asking about food at all makes him feel guilty. Still, the water part has him concerned. “Not yet,” he says, feeling his face contort with the lie. “But if you need water, it’s right there.” He nods toward the waves in what he hopes isn’t a condescending way.

The stranger smiles at him. “Oh sweet pea,” she laughs. “I can’t drink saltwater. And after my ordeal today, I don’t think the gulf and I get along, do you?”

Galen blinks. It would seem to him that she and other humans do not get along.

She winks up at him. Her behavior is getting stranger with each breath she takes. “Who knew guardian angels had fins instead of wings?”

She’s gone mad. Except for the part about fins. He’d been hoping he could convince her that she’d hallucinated that part. But she knows what she saw. Before he can protest, she holds up her hand. “No, no, don’t you worry about that. I don’t know who you are, or what you are, and I don’t care. Not one bit. I won’t tell a soul about you, I swear.”

Galen steps back. Dr. Milligan warned him that some humans might say that. To earn his trust. He glances at the waves beside him. It would be so easy for him and Toraf and Rayna to disappear in the surf. To leave this human and the danger she represents, the threat she poses right now, standing here saying that she knows his secret. That she remembers everything.

“My name is Rachel,” she says suddenly, as if to distract him. “What’s yours?”

“His name is Galen,” his sister sings, “and this is Toraf, and I’m Rayna. Why are your fingernails red?”

Galen is torn. Should he run toward the tide, or choke his sister first? He doesn’t have time to make the decision. The human puts her free arm around Rayna—while Toraf’s jaw drops to his toes—and leads her back to the fire. “It’s so nice to meet you, Rayna,” Rachel the Human says pleasantly. “This is called nail polish. On land, we paint our fingernails to make them look pretty. Would you like me to paint yours for you sometime? Of course, I don’t have any with me, but we can pick some out at the store. There are all sorts of colors you can choose from.”

This appears to delight his sister. Not good.

Toraf punches him in the arm. “Idiot! You’ve let that nasty human kidnap Rayna. Do something.”

“Come on,” Galen says through clenched teeth. “You go sit with them. I’m going to go find the hum—er, Rachel—something to eat. Don’t let them leave the fire.”

“You think?”

But Galen is already heading in the opposite direction.

 

“I’ve never had cooked crab before,” Rayna says, tossing the last crab shell on the substantial pile of remains they’d created during the course of their meal. The gulls overheard squawk their interest.

“Why would you?” Galen asks. “Live crab tastes better.” His nerves are on the verge of revolting. Rayna hasn’t stopped talking, Toraf hasn’t stopped glaring at him, and Rachel hasn’t stopped assessing him with worshipful eyes. It’s the longest meal he’s ever taken in his life, and he’s ready for it to be over.

Rayna gives Rachel an apologetic look. “Galen can be dense sometimes. He doesn’t appreciate how sophisticated humans are.”

Usually it’s Galen having to offer excuses for Rayna’s behavior. Guilt picks at him like tiny minnows. He glances at Rachel sheepishly. “It’s just that we don’t spend much time on land. We’re not supposed to.”

Rachel draws her knees up to her chin, scrunching her toes in the sand. “I see.” She stares into the dwindling fire, her body casting a small shadow beside her in the midmorning sun. Even the shadow has unruly hair. “I was hoping that we could get to know each other better. All of us. Friendships start out based on a lot less than—”

“We can’t,” Galen says quickly. He stands. “I wasn’t supposed to do what I did.”

“You regret saving me?” She says this without expression. Galen wonders if this is a learned reaction. He’s seen his brother, Grom, do it countless times, wear indifference like a second skin.

“No.” He runs a hand through his hair. “No. But staying on land like this, building a fire . . . It’s not what we do.”

“What exactly do you do?” She glances at his necklace for emphasis.

Galen clutches it. It looks bad, he knows. Wearing a human’s necklace and claiming that he doesn’t spend time on land. But it’s the truth. He frowns. “I didn’t steal it, if that’s what you mean.”

“Why would I mean that?”

Rachel is especially good at making him feel wrong, Galen decides. He doesn’t know where this conversation could be going, and it makes him uncomfortable. He glances, for what feels like the hundredth time, toward the waves beckoning at him. “We have to go now.”

Rachel stands quickly. So quickly that Toraf puts a protective arm around Rayna, which earns him an elbow to the ribs. “I’m sorry to beat around the bush,” Rachel says. “I’m just . . . trying to figure you out, is all.” She pulls her mess of hair around to one side. “And I don’t mean to get all up in your business. Honest to God, I don’t. But if I had to guess, being who—or what—you are, I’d say you found that necklace in the ocean somewhere. A shipwreck maybe?” When Galen’s mouth drops open, she smiles. “And if that’s the case, then it could be worth a lot of money.”

“Money?” Rayna says, testing out the word. She still hasn’t stood up, which means that she doesn’t intend on leaving with Galen. Nice. “Is that good?”

“To humans, it’s very good,” Rachel says. “Money is power up here on land.”

Galen crosses his arms. “We don’t need human power. As I said, we don’t spend much time on land.”

“Why not?”

Galen blinks. “Why not what?”

“Why don’t you spend much time on land? Don’t you care what the humans are doing? Because believe me, they’d care very much if they found out about you.” She waves in dismissal when he takes a step back. “Oh, sweet pea, that’s one thing you’ll just have to learn about me. I’m an expert secret keeper.”

Galen can feel his heart beat in his throat. He needs to get Rayna and Toraf into the water now. Rachel seems to sense his unrest. “Galen,” she says softly. “You saved my life. Why would I put you in danger?” She sits back down, as if to appear less imposing. How such a small human could seem so mighty in the first place is beyond Galen. “I think I could help you, you know. Rayna told me about your laws. That contact with humans is strictly forbidden.”

Rayna bites her lip, but Galen knows it’s just a show of shame. There is no real shame swimming in Rayna’s veins. There never has been. “I totally get that,” Rachel continues. “The law protects you. And I think it’s a good idea for most of your kind to abide by it.”

“Most?” Rayna says, hopeful. Galen resists the urge to pinch the bridge of his nose. They are showing this human too much of themselves.

Rachel nods. “We humans have a saying: ‘Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.’ Do you understand what that means?”

Galen steps closer. He nods. “Go on.”

Rachel picks up a stick and pokes the almost nonexistent fire. He wonders if she’s trying to seem unimposing again. “Humans are finding new ways to explore the oceans every day. If I were in your situation, I’d want someone to keep an eye on that.”

“I already have Dr. Milligan to—” Galen sucks in a breath. He’s said too much.

“Dr. Milligan?” Rachel says. He can tell she’s committing the name to memory. He doesn’t like that. “Well, I don’t know anything about Dr. Milligan, of course. I assume he is another human who knows about you? How many of us are there?”

“Just him. And now you.”

She nods. “Good. Now then. I’m sure Dr. Milligan has good intentions and all. And I’m sure he does help you watch the human world. But watching is only half the battle, sweet pea.”

Galen is not sure what a sweet pea is, but it sounds a lot like an endearment. He hopes Rachel the Human does not have the wrong idea, what with the fire and the crabs and his staying the night. But Rachel doesn’t seem to be in a romantic mood. Especially since she’s talking about war. “Battle? What battle?”

“What I mean is, say Dr. Milligan comes across some humans who found out about you? What would he do about it?”

“He would tell me.” In fact, some humans do know about them; it’s how he met Dr. Milligan in the first place, scuba diving with some human friends. They’d seen Galen. Captured him. Dr. Milligan saved him. Protected him from the humans. But this is a story that Rachel need not know.

“And what would you do about it?”

Galen crosses his arms. “I guess I would tell my brother about it. He’s going to be king one day. He would know what to do.”

“What does your brother know about humans?”

Next to nothing. Galen shrugs. “He knows enough.”

“I seriously doubt that, sweet pea. I’m sure he’ll make a great king one day and all. But if he doesn’t know much about humans, he won’t be able to protect your kind against them.”

“I don’t see how money would help.”

“Money, no. The power money buys, yes. I could make contact with those humans who found out about you. I could find out things about them, find out where they live, who their families are. I could bribe them to keep their mouths shut. Do you know what a bribe is?”

Galen nods. He does it to Rayna all the time.

This conversation is giving him a headache. Or maybe it’s the lack of sleep. Or maybe it’s that Rayna and Toraf are playing a game in the sand instead of listening to this exchange and offering their input on bribing. Not that their input would be particularly valuable at this point, what with Rayna enamored with Rachel, and Toraf enamored with Rayna.

Suddenly Galen feels bullied by this little stranger. He sighs and sits back down. Rachel is direct. Why shouldn’t I be? “Tell me this. Why would a human like you be interested in helping our kind? At least Grom has an interest in us; it will be his kingdom one day. I’m trying to figure out why you would care.” He meant to be direct, not mean.

His words seem to lance through Rachel. Overwhelming sadness returns to her deep brown eyes. “Those people who threw me overboard yesterday? They happened to be the people I cared about the most. Trusted the most. And they tried to kill me.” She shrugs. “You could say that right now, you’re the only friends I’ve got in the whole wide world. You and Rayna and Toraf. You showed up when I needed you the most. I want to do the same for you.” Her voice almost cracks at the end.

Galen is speechless.

Rayna is not. She looks up from her game. She has been paying attention the whole time. “Of course we want your help. You see how Galen fights against reason? It gets tiring, let me tell you.” His sister claps the sand off her hands. “Tell us about money. Tell us how we can get some of it.”

Rachel looks at Galen, triumph practically dripping from her face. “Your brother’s necklace has got to be worth a lot of money. If he’ll let me, I’ll take it and sell it. That is, I’ll trade the necklace for human money.”

“The humans won’t ask you where you got it?” Galen says. “They won’t question where you found it?”

Rachel grins. “Sure they will. But I’m a good liar. And I only deal with people who don’t ask too many questions.”

“If you’re a good liar, why should we trust you?” Toraf asks. Galen isn’t sure if he wants to applaud his friend, or punch him in the mouth. He could have used his help in the beginning of the conversation, but now that the issue is nearly settled, he can’t imagine why Toraf would want to stir up trouble by making more accusations.

“You shouldn’t trust me,” Rachel says flatly. “In fact, you shouldn’t trust any humans. I don’t think that’s news to you, though. But what have you got to lose this time? That necklace? I bet you have plenty more than the one necklace.” Before Galen can answer, she says, “And it wouldn’t hurt to have two human contacts watching the world for you. If I sell that necklace, you’ll have someone who can actually wield power in your favor, too. Always good to have a backup plan.”

Galen can’t find a single argument against her logic. He never had any intention of keeping the necklace anyway; he would have traded it to Rayna for something eventually. But the idea of trading it for human power is irresistibly compelling. Of course, he doesn’t completely trust this tiny, intimidating stranger yet. But she’s right. All he has to lose is a necklace. He doesn’t have to speak with Rachel ever again if he doesn’t want to. All three of them could disappear in the surf and never come back. Or he could take a chance, risk only himself, and possibly get the opportunity to offer all Syrena at least a small amount of extra protection.

Really, the question is how could he not do it?

Rayna stands, dragging Toraf with her. She yawns. “It’s settled then. Galen, give Rachel the necklace. Rachel, how long will it take you to sell it?”

“Once I get what’s left of my old life tucked away and all, I can be up and running in two weeks, no problem.”

Galen’s not sure what “up and running” means, but he does recognize the word “weeks.” “It means fourteen turns of the sun,” he tells his sister, whose eyes are glazed with confusion.

Galen lifts the necklace from his chest and walks it over to Rachel. She accepts it gingerly, and for a moment, he thinks she may have been holding her breath. He holds his hand down for her. “We’ll meet you in this same place in two weeks,” Galen tells her, hoisting her up.

She nods. “I won’t let you down, cutie pie. You have my word.”

“Good-bye, Rachel,” he says, turning toward the alluring tide.

“Not good-bye, Galen. Until we meet again.”

But he’s already wading in the water, Toraf and Rayna close behind.

 

Galen sets down his seaweed net long enough to pull on the swimming trunks he hid under a rock behind Rachel’s new house. She bought him several pairs, but he likes the way these fit better than the rest. And if he is honest, he likes the bright red color, too. He grabs the net full of human treasures and walks on shore. A warm glow of light coming from the windows illuminates his way to the beach. The savory smell of broiled fish dances in his nose, making his stomach protest in hunger.

Galen smiles to himself. An entire season has passed since the humans threw Rachel away. She says the humans have a saying: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” When she told him that, she was referring to some cans she intended to recycle. Whatever that meant. But Galen has always applied that saying to Rachel herself. What the humans threw away turned out to be a priceless treasure to him.

She’ll be pleased with my haul, he thinks to himself as he ambles up the steps to her back porch, the human relics tinkling against each other in the net slung over his shoulder. Especially when she sees the chest full of gold coins I had to leave in the shallow water. He’ll make a second trip back to the beach once he’s dropped off his net full of goods.

He finds Rachel in the kitchen, as usual, tapping around in her high heels. The heads and backbones of two large red snappers lay on the counter beside the refrigerator. The cooked flesh sits in a pan on the stove, and Rachel sprinkles little leafy green things into the pan—for decoration, she says—then squeezes the juice from half a mangled lemon on it.

“You expecting Toraf?” Galen says, setting the net on the floor. Red snapper is Toraf’s favorite, and he’s taken a liking to the way Rachel prepares it.

She rinses her lemony fingers in the sink. “I am. He brought these by this morning. Ooh, whatcha got for me?”

Galen grins. “A lot of things.”

“Including this?” Toraf calls from the back door. He grunts as he tries to maneuver the chest of coins without running into any furniture. Some coins—and saltwater—spill onto the kitchen floor. Rachel’s eyes go round. Which is usually a very good sign.

“You’ve got to be kidding me!” she squeals. “Where did you find that? Good grief, it feels like my birthday!”

Humans have this weird habit of keeping track of the day of their birth, and every single season, they actually celebrate getting older. It’s the most ridiculous thing Galen’s ever heard of. But he doesn’t want to dampen Rachel’s enthusiasm. “I think it’s the Spanish fleet you were telling me about. I traced the whole course we discussed, and came across a wreck that could possibly be it. There are plenty of other things there, too, but I wanted to see if this could bring anything first.”

Rachel puts her hand over her heart. “This could be big. Huge. I’m telling you. This is a big deal, whether it’s that Spanish fleet or not. You’re seriously going to be the richest nonhuman on the planet.”

Galen takes a chair at the kitchen table. Toraf joins him. “Didn’t you say you had a surprise for Galen?” Toraf says.

Galen hasn’t forgotten about his surprise, but he doesn’t want to seem overeager for it. He’s been anticipating what it could possibly be, but has tried not to get his hopes up—or Rachel’s. He hasn’t mastered the art of fixing his facial expressions yet, to arrange them into some form of happy, and he can’t stand the thought of disappointing her with his reaction. It’s just that . . . Sometimes Rachel has the wrong idea about what makes a good gift. Once she bought him what she called “top of the line cologne.” She sprayed it all over him before he could get away. Not even the saltwater could wash it away completely. He smelled of it for days and days. Even Rayna wouldn’t come near him. Galen can’t imagine why human males would do that to themselves.

“Let’s get you fed first,” Rachel says, setting the pan in the middle of the table. “Then I’ll show you the surprise. But it’s not a present, not really. You earned it.”

Now Galen’s imagination goes wild. He has no idea what it could be, especially if he’s somehow earned it. Except that it sounds like she bought it with his human money.

After dinner, Rachel seems to be purposely driving him mad by taking her time clearing the table. He helps her with the dishes, and putting away the pots and pans. Then she sets to wiping down the counters and the kitchen table. When she’s done with that, she opens the refrigerator and moves around some containers.

“You’re keeping me waiting on purpose,” Galen says, crossing his arms.

Rachel laughs and shuts the door. “I was wondering how long it would take you, sweet pea.”

“I have to admit,” Toraf says, “it felt like torture and it’s not even my surprise.”

“I promise it’s not cologne.” Rachel leads them to the garage and flips on the light. This room is usually empty except for “odds and ends,” as Rachel calls them. Tools, the washer and dryer for human clothes, a big tank that heats water for the shower and sinks. But now there’s an immense green metal thing taking up the space. Galen knows what it is. Rachel has one. Hers is red. She uses it to take her to where she needs to go. Turns out, humans don’t like to walk much. So they use some sort of land boat to get around. She calls them cars.

“A car?” Galen says, swallowing hard. “That’s my surprise.”

She hands him a ring of metal trinkets. “These are the keys. You need them to start it.”

He hands them back. “I don’t want a car.” He knows he sounds like a fingerling throwing a fit. Rachel takes it in stride. Like she takes everything.

“I know it’s a big step, sweet pea. But I think you need to learn how to drive. I think you need to invest some time in the human world yourself.”

“Why? I have you. And Dr. Milligan.”

She nods, thoughtful. “That’s true, you do. And if it were up to me, I wouldn’t change a thing. But we’re different from you, sweet pea. Humans die. And from the way you talk, we die a lot sooner than you Syrena do.”

“You’re not old, though.”

“Of course I’m not,” she says disdainfully. “A lady never is. But one day I’ll be . . . seasoned. One day I’ll die. And all our hard work to protect your kind will be gone with the wind.”

Sometimes Galen can’t follow her choice of words, but he gets the general gist of this. “Grom won’t approve. He’s fine with me having human contacts, but this . . . this is too human. I’m participating too much.”

“Grom doesn’t have to know.” She holds up her hand. “Oh I know, you don’t like when I say that. But here’s the thing, Galen. Grom doesn’t know what the humans are capable of. Remember all those things I showed you on the computer? All the wars?”

Grom knows more than she gives him credit for, he thinks. Much more. Grom’s betrothed, Nalia, died long ago in an underwater human minefield. Galen didn’t need to do research on any computer to know what the humans are capable of. He can see it on his brother’s face every day. But that’s not a story he’s ready to tell Rachel. Not just yet.

He doesn’t understand how learning to drive a car will help him protect his fellow Syrena. But he’s found that Rachel never does anything without a purpose. Never.

He holds out his hand for the keys. Gently, she places them in the center of his palm. “It doesn’t have to be right now. Give it some time. Think on it. That’s all I’m asking.”

He nods, turning the keys over and over in his hand.

“I have something else for you.” She reaches into her back jeans pocket and pulls out a small card. It looks like the one she keeps in her purse.

Except that this card has a picture of his face on it. And his name. “What is this?”

“It’s a driver’s license. You can’t drive a car without a license.”

“All you need is one of these?”

“Um. No. Humans have to jump through hoops to get a driver’s license.”

The thought of that sounds absurd and unreasonable, jumping around through hoops and such, but Galen has already decided that humans are too complicated to understand. “What is this word next to my name? F-O-R-Z-A.” Rachel taught him how to use the human alphabet to form some human words, but this wasn’t one he recognized.

“Well, humans have two names. Dr. Milligan’s is Jerry and Milligan, remember? Mine is Rachel and Cullotta. Well, at least that’s one name I use. When you’ve been married a few times like I have, you inherit all sorts of names to go along with it. This says your last name is Forza. Forza means ‘strength’ in Italian.”

This startles Galen. “Strength?” He’d never thought of himself as strong before.

Toraf laughs. “Are you sure that’s not my license?”

Rachel winks at him. “I can make you one, too.” But Toraf turns considerably paler at this suggestion.

“Oh,” Toraf says. “I don’t . . . I mean, I’m not . . .”

Galen decides to save him. “Looks like we both need some time to adjust to the idea of having a human identity.” He doesn’t like how that sounds. As if somehow he has become part human. In a small way, it makes him feel like he’s betraying his heritage.

Having a human identity, driving a human car . . . He’s not sure he’s ready for that. Of course, Rachel is probably right. She always is. But it doesn’t mean he has to decide right now. It doesn’t mean he can’t run the idea by Grom, no matter what Rachel thinks. After all, there’s a fine line between watching the humans and pretending to be one. Maybe one day there will be an urgent-enough reason to pretend to be human. But today is not that day.

He hands both the keys and the license to Rachel. “Keep these here. Until I’m ready.”

Rachel sighs. “Okay, sweet pea. Any idea how long that will be?”

Galen shrugs. “We’ll know when it’s time, I think.”

 

“The Stranger” copyright © 2013 by Anna Banks

Art copyright © 2013 by Goñi Montes

4 comments
Tina Pierce
1. scissorrunner
thank you Anna
thank you Tor
will we see more?
Kayla Beck
2. kaylabeck
I loved it! I can't wait until I can get my hands on the audiobook for Of Triton!
Tabitha Jensen
3. pabkins
Thanks so much! It was the perfect fix to tide me over!
Gavin Patterson
4. Gavin Patterson
You are an uh-mazing writer! I love your thesaurus-like skills at finding a better used noun or verb to replace common language.

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