Grom is a mer-prince, pledged to marry the mermaid princess of an opposing kingdom in an effort to unite the lands under the waters. He dreads this arrangement until meets the princess Nalia – both beautiful and smart, she’s everything he ever wanted. But just when their connection grows deeper, tragedy strikes.
This story was acquired and edited for Tor.com by Feiwel & Friends editor Elizabeth Szabla.
Grom’s fin gives an occasional thrust, a reflex really, to maintain forward motion if only at the speed of driftwood. But comparing himself to driftwood would be unfair—to the driftwood. At least driftwood doesn’t have to mate with the hideous Poseidon heir.
He keeps his back to the abyss below and his face upturned to the ceiling of ice above him. A ceiling to the Syrena, a floor to the humans, but most important, a divider of the worlds. Even when the humans began to submerge their steel death ships—long, ugly things that breathed fire underwater and hurled chunks of metal at one another—none of them dared to venture as far north as the Big Ice. So far.
Which is lucky for him, since the Syrena hide all things of importance under the frozen shield, down in the depths of the Cave of Memories—Grom’s destination. Within the cave, he’ll find the Ceremony Chamber, and possibly a way out of his own impending ceremony—the one that seals him to the house of Poseidon for the rest of his miserable life. The punishment for being a firstborn, third-generation Triton Royal.
En route to the cave, Grom spots an occasional ice chunk bulging out more than the rest, so as to resemble a bulbous nose. If he lets his eyes relax enough, the crevices and icicles surrounding it could blur into the dour face of his father, the Triton king—or, at least, the face his father made when Grom told him he didn’t particularly want to mate with the Poseidon princess.
But to complete the king’s fury, Grom would need to somehow add ten shades of blotchy red to the ice—one shade for each time his father had said, “But you’re the firstborn, third-generation Triton. You must uphold the law of Gifts.” Or, on second thought, maybe one shade of red for each time Grom had said, “The law is outdated!”
Whether or not the law really is outdated, Grom can’t say. The law of Gifts was brought into effect long ago by the great generals, Triton and Poseidon, to ensure the survival of the Syrena. At least that’s what the Archives say. But the Gift of Poseidon hasn’t occurred in many generations. Not that the Syrena are starving, by any means. But as more and more humans invade the oceans, the more important the Gift of Poseidon will become, especially since they all share a common food source: fish. The humans have their nets. The Syrena have the Gift of Poseidon.
As for the Gift of Triton, not even the Archives can remember the last time anyone saw evidence of it. In fact, there is continual debate about what the Gift of Triton actually is. Even the Archives—the oldest of the Syrena entrusted to remember such things—continually debate about Triton’s Gift. Some say speed. Some say strength. But if the Archives can’t remember, who’s to say it actually still exists?
But one thing Grom is sure of is that the survival of the Gifts couldn’t possibly hinge on his mating with the ugly Poseidon princess. The Archives must surely be mistaken on that point.
Nalia, Nalia, Nalia. Just thinking her name makes him snarl.
He’s only ever met her once, years ago when her mother died. Etiquette had forced the Triton Royals to pay their respects to the mourning house of Poseidon. Well, etiquette, and the close friendship between Grom’s father and the Poseidon king, Antonis. But for Grom, it was strictly etiquette. Especially considering how Nalia had treated him. And I was just expressing my condolences!
Thirteen mating seasons old at the time, he was already being groomed to rule the Triton territory, already given the respect due to a future king. But Nalia was a haughty little mess, even at a mere nine seasons old. He remembers how careful he was in reciting each word of his mother’s comforting speech, saying noble things about death and loss and love, even as Nalia sneered up at him in apparent disgust. Most of all, he remembers how those swollen red eyes made her look like the result of what would happen if a puffer fish mated with a rock. She’d said, “How could you understand my loss? You didn’t even know my mother!”
Which wasn’t true at all, of course. Grom’s parents had been fast friends with the Poseidon Royals for many years. That is, before the precious princess came along. After giving birth to the spoiled bullshark, the Poseidon queen never fully recovered, and preferred to stay in the Royal caverns rather than venture out to any social functions.
To be fair—or at least, to pretend to be fair—Nalia couldn’t justly be blamed for the queen’s death, no matter how closely her sudden decline coincided with the birth of Puffer Fish Face. Or maybe she’s more like a hammerhead, since her eyes are set so far apart.
Grom smirks to himself as, at that moment, he passes a slab of ice with two deep-set holes spaced an arm’s length apart. “Nalia,” he says to the contorted, makeshift face, “still so icy after all these years?” He even allows himself a chuckle at her expense. Why not? After we’re mated, everything will be at my expense.
After a long stretch of brooding, Grom senses the two Trackers guarding the entrance to the Cave of Memories. No doubt they sensed him before he sensed them, possibly as soon as he set off on his journey. Which has always amazed him. All Syrena can sense each other within close proximity, but Trackers have a special sensing capacity. The ones who impress him the most are the elite Trackers, who can sense their kind even from opposite sides of the world. Only the elite can stand guard at the Cave of Memories. Only the elite can be trusted with such precious relics.
And to Grom, none of those relics are more valuable at this moment than the answers that lie in the Ceremony Chamber, the place where all of Syrena history is documented. Matings, births, annulments, deaths. With any shimmer of luck, Grom will find evidence that he’s not third generation. Or that he’s not firstborn. Or, better yet, he’s not even of Triton descent! He’d take any of those options over the last one: He is all of the above, and he will mate with Nalia and her hammerhead eyes.
When Grom senses the Trackers directly below, he swoops down and approaches them at the entrance. Both—one from each Royal house—move aside for him.
“Is there a Royal function here today, my prince?” the Triton Tracker says.
Grom pauses before he passes. “No. Why do you ask?” And then he senses her. Nalia. Why is she here?
The Tracker nods when he sees that Grom recognizes Nalia’s pulse. “Her Highness arrived not long ago, my prince. We just thought . . .” The Tracker shrugs, unable or unwilling to theorize further.
Grom presses his lips together in a tight line. “Did she say why?”
This time, the Poseidon Tracker shakes his head. “She did not, my prince.”
Grom nods. “As you were, then.” Careful to hide his grimace until he passes, he makes his way into the enormous first chamber, a cavern filled with long rocks that look like icicles dangling from the top and protruding from the bottom. It reminds Grom of the mouth of a piranha.
You don’t have to see her. Just find what you came for and leave. But the more he winds through the maze of caverns, the more his heart sinks. He passes the Scroll Chamber, full of human and Syrena relics, none of which are actual scrolls; all the true scrolls, the ones scrawled onto papyrus and birch centuries ago, have disintegrated into bits of nothing to be stolen by the current. Then there’s the Tomb Chamber, the final resting place for all Syrena dead, preserved by the freezing water and, most importantly, kept from washing ashore on any human beaches. He eases past the Civic Chamber, full of monuments from many human civilizations. Each tunnel, each chamber, brings him closer and closer to the Ceremony Chamber—and closer to her.
Finally, he reaches the entrance, and the female Tracker on guard meets him with a surprised look. “Your Highness,” she says, bowing her head in reverence.
Grom scowls. Nalia’s pulse pounds against his chest, his head, his entire body. He doesn’t remember her pulse being this strong, this intrusive. She’s in the Ceremony Chamber. Why, why, why?
“As you were,” Grom nearly growls, making his way through the elongated opening.
The Ceremony Chamber is nothing but century after century of Syrena records etched and carved into aged rock—a much more practical material than the humans’ papyrus, Grom is sure—stacked atop one another, maintained for an eternity by the Archives and the Trackers and the freezing waters. Grom has always been in awe of this chamber, even before it meant something to him personally. Before it meant his possible escape from the law. He’s always felt as if past lives, past experiences called out to him from the stone tablets, as if this place held answers to future questions he might have one day as a Triton king.
But now, it feels as if this place has closed off access to itself, replaced by the suffocating pulse of her.
Deciding the meeting is inevitable—he knows she senses him just as clearly as he senses her—he chooses the diplomatic course and follows her pulse until he finds her draped over a stone tablet in a far corner of the cave.
Nalia is all grown up.
From head to fin-tip, she takes up the length of the tablet and then some. She’s twisted her long black hair into a braid and tied a knot at the end to keep it in place. Though a strand of seaweed is wrapped tightly around her torso in the traditional female cover, it doesn’t quite hide the swell of her breasts. Without looking up, she says, “What are you doing here?”
Though her voice is full of disdain, it’s not unpleasant. In fact, it has a rich texture to it, velvety as a fin, and it fills up the cave with her presence. He doesn’t like it. Not at all. Grom clears his throat. “I might ask the same of you, princess.”
She huffs, but still won’t look at him, which is sure to drive him mad. “Yes, you might.”
It occurs to Grom that he really does want to know why she’s here. Is she here for the same reason I am? Does she seek a way out of this arrangement too? Hope licks at his insides, but then a sense of rejection instantly quells it. After all these years, she still dares to snub him.
I won’t have it, not again. Not with all the females I have throwing themselves at me at every change in the current. What makes her so special?
Then Nalia, firstborn, third-generation Poseidon heir, looks up.
And Grom almost falters. “You’ve . . . you’ve changed, princess.”
Yes, it’s the same pulse he remembers from years earlier. But it’s not the same face. Not the puffer fish face with hammerhead tendencies. No, this face, this new Nalia, this grown-up Nalia, is breathtaking. Her eyes are still huge, yes, but in a way that makes his mouth go dry despite the ocean around him. And the color of them! Didn’t he remember them being dull and plain? Could they always have been this vibrant, this crystalline violet? And her lips. So full. So alluring. So pouty.
“You haven’t changed at all,” she counters, crossing her arms. “Except, your mouth hangs open wider than I remember.”
Grom clamps his mouth shut.
“And you still haven’t answered my question. What are you doing here?” she says.
Grom offers his most charming grin, but from the look on her face the effort is wasted. “Surely you know. I’m here to make sure there is no mistake in the records. That I am the only Syrena lucky enough to be your mate.”
Her eyes declare him full of whale dung. “Liar,” is what she says out loud.
“I swear by Triton’s trident.” He places three fingers on his Royal birthmark, the small image of a trident embedded into his skin just before stomach turns into fin. “I had to make sure you were mine.”
She uncrosses her arms. “You and I do not like each other.”
“Is that so? I didn’t realize.”
If Nalia narrows her eyes anymore, they’ll close. “You were mean to me when you came to my mother’s entombing ceremony.”
Beautiful, but dumb as a clam. Such a shame. Grom cocks his head at her. “Was that before or after you attacked me?” Attacked me, then bit me when I tried to restrain her. How convenient that she doesn’t remember. Their parents had found them wrapped up in each other, her in his best headlock, him trying to pry her vicious little teeth from his stomach. That’s when the ridiculous rumor had started that they had taken a liking to each other. Complete nonsense.
“You told me I killed my mother.”
“I didn’t say that. Not exactly.” Pretty close, though, he recalls. “We could start over, you know. Forget about the past.” Over my lifeless fin.
Nalia must notice that he’s making his way closer, because she presses herself against the tablet. Grom swears she swallows with the familiar vulnerability of an awestruck female. “Why would we do that?” she says.
He stops within a fin’s length of her.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” she says, her hand flitting to her throat. But he can tell by her face that it’s the same kind of reflex of alarm he’s feeling—and it has nothing to do with danger. Her eyes, too, are full of the same kind of whirlwind he feels tightening in his chest. And he doesn’t like it. Not at all.
Grom floats closer, growing more delighted as she allows him to devour the distance between them. Who’s the awestruck one now, idiot? “Like what?” he murmurs, his nose almost touching hers. He decides Nalia is the exact opposite of ugly. She has the same features as every other Syrena. Smooth olive skin, dark black hair, violet eyes. But hers are all arranged in just the right way to make her stunning.
Nalia gasps, licking her lips. She keeps her eyes locked on his. “Like . . . like . . .”
“Like I found what I was looking for?” he offers.
He’s answered with a sharp jab to his throat. “Like you’re looking to die,” she whispers, pressing whatever weapon she has into the soft flesh under his jawbone. “This is a lionfish spike. If you even flick your fin, I’ll inject its venom.”
His eyes lock on hers, a silent battle raging between them. “You won’t do it.”
“You don’t know me.”
“I want to. I do.” Right after I murder you.
She scoffs. “I’m going to leave now. You’re going to stay right here.” She whirls them around in one fluid motion and backs away from him, toward the entrance. A tantalizing smirk curves her lips. “You must have bumped your head on the way in,” she says, tucking the hook behind her, probably into her braid. “To think that would work on me.”
Grom never takes his eyes off her. “And what do you think will work, pray tell?”
She shrugs. “I don’t suppose it matters much.” Nalia glances back at the stone tablet she was reading. “Since I don’t have a choice one way or the other.” Then she speeds away with such force that a swish of water slaps at his face in her wake.
When the length of her elegant fin disappears behind a bend in the cave, he glides over to the tablet. He could go after her. He could even call her bluff on the lionfish venom—she wouldn’t keep such a deadly threat tucked against her bare flesh. Or, he could let her bask in this small victory. Let her think he’s weak.
His eyes scan the tablet, but his attention is still overwhelmed by the memory of her. If she didn’t find what she was looking for here, then it’s not likely that he will either. Their future course is set. One day, they will be mated. It’s a battle neither of them can win. He knows it. She knows it.
But today, Nalia started a new battle. One that he’s intent on winning.
The one for her heart.
* * *
Grom finds his mother in her private chamber, right in the middle of her usual routine of caring for her human relics. She uses her finger to gently swipe off a layer of silt from a tall clear cylinder, which she claims the humans use to contain fire for light. After it’s spotless, she moves on to a small white box, her favorite of them all. “I can’t touch this one anymore,” she says without looking up. She puckers, then blows a gentle stream through the delicate flowers carved on the lid. A slight cloud of black wafts up, just before the surrounding water absorbs it. “Last time I chipped one of the small green pieces, see?”
Grom swims forward and squints, more in a show of interest than in actual interest. “Are you sure it wasn’t already like that? You did recover this from a wreck, after all.”
She bites her lip. “I’m sure. I cried when I did it.”
“You and your human treasures,” he says, not unkindly.
“Oh, not you too,” she says, waving her hand. “Do I not get enough complaints from your father? Is it so wrong to want to preserve beauty, even if it’s made from human hands?”
“Of course not,” Grom smiles. “Otherwise, the Cave of Memories would be outlawed. Besides, I didn’t come here to complain.”
“Excellent! I do get weary of having to defend myself. What can I do for you, my son?”
“It’s about Nalia.”
The queen groans. “Oh, Grom. You know that’s the one thing I can’t—”
“I want her for my mate,” he blurts.
“I . . . You do?” She clasps her hands together. “Because I was certain that you’d rather mate with a rockfish. In fact, I think you’ve said as much on several—”
“Things changed. She changed. But I want her to want me too.” Sort of. He wants her to want him, so he can reject her the way she rejected him. But that explanation won’t convince the queen to help him.
“Truly? Do you . . . do you love her, then?”
“No,” he says, even as he feels Nalia’s pulse thrum through him. Ever since their meeting in the Ceremony Chamber, he can’t shake it. Sometimes it’s light, almost like a phantom tickle, easily brushed aside. Other times it’s maddening, strong and intrusive, so that he can’t think of anything else but her. And apparently talking about her triggers the madness. He doesn’t like that. Not at all.
“Then why?” His mother’s lips press into a line.
Grom chuckles, hoping it doesn’t sound as fake as it feels. “Have you seen Nalia lately, mother?”
The queen gasps. “Are you shallow as a clam pool, boy?”
“Triton’s trident! Ever since she was born you and father have twisted my fin to accept her. Now you’re upset that I’m willing to mate with her. I do wish you’d make up your mind.”
His mother grimaces in obvious shame.
“Truth be told,” he says, almost choking on the words, “I think it’s more than love. I think it’s the pull.”
“The pull!” she says, gliding over to him. “Grom, are you sure? What makes you think so?”
Grom shrugs. He should have looked into the whole ridiculous legend further before going around spewing “the pull” all over the place. He has no idea of the supposed symptoms. And symptoms they are, since Grom has always considered the pull a mental defect, at best. The idea that nature could force a couple together in order to produce stronger offspring has always been nonsensical to him.
“Do you think about her all the time?” The queen’s eyes light up. “Do you always sense her, no matter how far apart you are?”
There is nothing fake about his scowl as he realizes he does. Not possible. It’s not possible that I actually do feel the pull for Nalia. He clears his throat. “Er . . . yes.” The words taste like squid ink in his mouth.
“Oh, this is wonderful. I can’t wait to tell your father.”
“No! Do we have to tell anyone? I mean, it doesn’t matter if it’s the pull or not, right? We would still have to mate, even if it’s not.”
“But wait. If you feel the pull toward her, shouldn’t Nalia feel the pull toward you? Isn’t that how it works?”
Triton’s trident, what a stupid legend. “I’m sure she reciprocates, mother. But given our history, she might be stubborn enough to fight it.” Again, Nalia’s pulse jolts through his veins. He grits his teeth. “And that’s what I need your help with. I want to charm her. Win her over.”
Grom swears he hears pity in the Triton queen’s chuckle. “Oh, my dear boy. Who could resist your charms? I’m sure you’ll have no trouble at all stealing her heart. You don’t need my help. The little princess has no idea what’s coming for her.” With that, his mother flits out of the cave in a wave of feminine innocence. And Grom is sure he’s just been had.
* * *
He follows Nalia’s pulse to the shallow waters off the coast of the Old World, in Triton territory. What is she doing in the Human Pass? Is she brainless?
The Human Pass is just that—a stretch of barren waters where the humans pass through in their underwater death ships. As best as Grom can figure, these humans think this is their territory, and they do their best to patrol it regularly. It’s a dangerous place for any Syrena, and a careless place for a Poseidon Royal.
Which is why he’s not really surprised to have found her here. In the weeks since their confrontation in the Cave of Memories, he’s found her in all sorts of unpredictable places. Unpredictable seems to be her specialty.
As he nears her pulse, he senses another one—the female Tracker he first met at the entrance of the Ceremony Chamber. Freya, Nalia’s accomplice in all things bad. He finds them both in Blended form on the bottom of the passage, their bodies mimicking and reflecting the color and texture of the rocky muck. Not bothering to Blend himself, he swims down to the barely discernible shapes. “Why are we hiding?” he says loudly.
Nalia materializes before him and rolls her eyes. “What are you doing here?” she hisses.
Grom crosses his arms. “I’m here to rescue you. I was very alarmed to find my future mate in dangerous waters. I’ve come to help.”
She Blends again and huffs. “You can help by Blending, and shutting your mouth.”
“What are you doing?” he asks, exasperated.
“I don’t answer to you.” Grom is left imagining just what kind of superior expression she has on that lovely face.
“No, but she does.” He raises a brow at the transparent silhouette next to Nalia.
Freya materializes. “We’re waiting for one of the long boats to pass so we can ride it.”
“Freya!” Nalia hisses.
“What?” Freya says, her voice full of whine. “I have to answer him. He’s a Triton Royal.”
Nalia appears again and scowls up at Grom. “Look, if you’re not going away anytime soon, then would you please just Blend so you don’t blow our cover?”
“You’re both out of your minds. Don’t you know how dangerous—”
“Shhh! They can pick up sounds down here somehow. They’ll come and investigate,” Nalia whispers.
Grom doesn’t even want to know how she knows this. He Blends and crouches down next to her, tucking his fin under him. “So this is your plan? To get yourself killed so you don’t have to mate with me?” He’s glad she can’t see the dejection he knows is all over his face.
She scoffs. “Not everything is about you. If you must know, we come here all the time. And since you’re here, I was going to invite you to come with us, but if you’re too scared—”
“I’m not,” he says, though he’s not sure he believes it. Hitching a ride on any human boat is dangerous, but hitching a ride on a human death ship is downright madness. Their sole purpose, as far as he can tell, is to pick fights with other human death ships, which makes them all moving targets. But, begrudgingly, he admits he’s a little thrilled that she thought to invite him this time. He’d love to reject the invitation, but if he does, it will look like as if he’s afraid, instead of like he’s just plain rejecting her.
Nalia seems pleased. “Good. One should be along soon. Here, take this. You’ll need it to hold on.” She hands him a chopped-off tentacle of what used to be a very large squid; the suckers are as big as his face. He wants to believe it was dead before she found it. But he doesn’t.
He swallows, turning the tentacle over in his hands. “You’re not serious.”
“Change your mind?” she coos. Freya giggles.
Grom swallows. “No.”
“Shhh! Here it comes.”
All three Syrena stiffen, almost invisible against the current. In the distance, a shadow emerges, slow and stealthy, like a wary shark. A giant, wary shark. It glides through the water, looking every bit the predator it is. When it’s just overhead, Nalia and Freya shoot up expertly, leaving Grom behind in the wake of their swirling muck. He watches as Nalia’s clear form latches on to the metal hull with her squid tentacle. Dangling by one arm, she materializes just long enough to grin down at him.
Stupidly, he grins back. And he’s thankful he’s still in Blended form. Otherwise, she might think he’s flirting with her. AmI flirting with her? In the next second, he springs up and attaches his own tentacle to the hull, his half grunt full of disbelief and thrill.
Up close, the ship doesn’t look as smooth. Where the metal is chipped in places, rust rings have settled in, and even a few barnacles have taken up residence in sporadic clumps along the length of it. But Grom suspects the humans aren’t so concerned about the beauty of it as they are about the deadliness of it. And deadly it is.
He keeps an eye on Nalia, who is now sneaking her way to the top of the vessel. He copies her movements as she sticks and unsticks her tentacle, careful not to make noise. Which is why his heart almost stops when Nalia starts pounding on the metal with a rock.
“What are you doing?” he says, feeling foolish for bothering to whisper.
She snickers and knocks again in an unmistakable rhythm. She materializes briefly, and presses her ear against the hull, motioning for Grom to do the same. “She really is insane,” he mutters as he does as he’s told. Inside the vessel, he hears a squall of human commotion. Each time Nalia knocks, the humans chatter in an alarmed tone, in a language Grom doesn’t understand. Then they knock back.
Nalia makes her way down to Grom at the middle of the death ship while Freya maneuvers to a long ladder on the side. He watches as the Tracker wraps her fin into the rungs to give her arms a rest.
“They always knock back,” Nalia says, proud. “Not just this one, but all of them.”
Grom smiles at the excitement in her voice. “What does it mean?”
“Not sure. My knocking doesn’t mean a thing, but I think theirs means something to them.”
Grom looks around. “We’re heading into deeper water. How long do we plan on risking our lives? I’m getting hungry.”
Nalia laughs, a genuine, tickled sound, and Grom realizes it could be his new favorite sound in all the ocean. Get a hold of yourself, idiot. This is your game. Play it.
“Sometimes we can drive them crazy enough to surface,” she says. “Then Freya likes to make faces in their little hole at the top. That really drives them mad.”
“Triton’s trident! How have you not been caught?”
Nalia materializes. “Who says we haven’t?”
“You’ve been caught by the humans? Does your father know?”
“Oh yes, of course he does. Because I tell him of all the illegal things I do.” She rolls her eyes. “No, we’ve never really been caught. Freya came close though. Sometimes she misplaces her intelligence.”
Freya materializes long enough to stick her tongue out at them. Nalia laughs, removing all doubt that it’s his new favorite sound.
Then a loud, foreign pitch startles him, one that seems to promise impending doom. He accidentally releases his tentacle and, in a shaved second, he’s falling behind the vessel. “What’s that sound?” he shouts to Nalia, trying to keep up, not caring if the humans on board can hear him.
“It means there’s another ship somewhere around here. An enemy one.” Her face is full of dread.
Grom’s gut wrenches. “Let go! Don’t be stupid. Please!”
“I can’t! Freya’s stuck on the ladder.”
Indeed, Freya wriggles within the confines of the ladder, as if it’s a living thing keeping her trapped. Nalia is right. Freya really does misplace her intelligence. It would be a simple thing to free herself, if she would just calm down long enough to think it through. But he can see the panic settle in, the calm leave her eyes. She’s working on survival instinct alone.
Then Grom sees it. In the distance, a huge shadow moves toward them. No, toward the human death ship. With speed, with confidence, with purpose, as if the two vessels were connected by a rope and their coming together were as natural as high tide.
Only, the other ship is much, much bigger—and there is nothing natural about this gross imbalance.
Freya sees the shadow too—and loses what little control she has left. She cries out, and her wiggling becomes more frantic, only serving to make her more stuck. Finally, Nalia reaches her, just as the sound of the alarm from the other vessel reaches them through the current. With one sweeping motion, Nalia shoves Freya’s fin through the last rung of the ladder, bending the tip at a painful angle. But even Freya recognizes the necessity of it, and nods her thanks to her friend as she swims from the metal monster.
Then another sound, metal against metal, resonates through the water. Our death ship is firing. Grom watches with horror as a cloud of fire lights up the front, then disappears, leaving only a trail of a shadow snaking from the ship. Unable to look away, he holds water in his lungs, not breathing out until he sees that the missile missed the other ship.
Which is worst case scenario.
“They’re going to fire back!” Grom shouts to Nalia and Freya, who are still too close to the ship. “We have to get out of here!”
“Yelling at me won’t help anything!” Nalia points down. Freya’s bent fin is making it impossible for her to keep a steady direction. Nalia bites her lip. “Leave us, Grom. There’s no reason for us all to die.”
He rolls his eyes and swims toward them. Grasping Freya’s other arm, he jerks her forward and gives Nalia a hard look. “Let’s. Go.”
Nalia nods. Grom tamps down a feeling of admiration when her expression changes from hopelessness to determination. Together they drag Freya, one of them on each of her arms, but it feels like slow motion, as if the water has thickened, as if the ocean itself is working against their escape.
A dull thud in the distance lets them know that the other ship has fired. And they are still too close. Freya screams and writhes from Grom’s grasp to turn, to see it launching toward them at the speed of death. Grom considers knocking her unconscious. But there’s no time.
Impact. Heat. Suddenly the whole world seems pushed forward. Even Nalia screams. Grom decides he never wants to hear that sound again. Gritting his teeth, he pulls both of them toward the seafloor. “Get down!” he orders. “Lie flat.”
They do as they’re told. Debris, sharp and heavy, showers down on them like bits of fallen prey. A rush of heat swooshes over them, between them, finding even the smallest spaces to fill. A hand grasps his. He doesn’t need to look down to know it’s Nalia’s.
When the loud ends, and the silence chases behind it, Grom looks up. The ship is gone. Obliterated. As if it never existed. He squeezes Nalia’s hand. “Are you alright?”
She eases up, shaking off the silt like an octopus coming out of hiding. Her lip quivers and she points to the back of her head. Grom tries to swallow his heart. “You’re hurt.”
She shakes her head and reaches around to pull a tangle of hair forward. “My hair,” she says, her eyes bigger than he’s ever seen them. “It’s singed.”
Grom cocks his head, flirting with the idea of strangling her. “Seriously?”
She shrugs, dejected. “I know it sounds petty. It’s just that . . . well, I really loved my hair.” She dangles it in front of her as if it’s a crispy dead eel.
They both remember Freya’s existence when she groans—apparently something else did the job of knocking her out without Grom’s assistance.
Nalia snaps out of it first and helps her friend, who gasps at the sight of her. “Oh, your hair! What will your father say?”
Grom pinches the bridge of his nose. Has the entire world gone mad? “It’s just hair,” he grits out. “It’ll grow back.”
Freya scolds him with a look. “It’s never just hair, Highness.”
“No,” Nalia says quietly. “He’s right. It’s time I let it go.” Throwing Freya’s arm over her shoulder and hoisting her up, she looks at Grom. “My father always said my hair was the exact same color as Mother’s. It felt like keeping a part of her with me, I guess.”
Grom stares at her, stunned. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean—”
“Freya, you simply have to cut it for me,” Nalia says, setting her jaw.
Her friend pulls back, eyes wide. “Oh no. Not me. I’m not doing it. Your father will have me arrested.”
Nalia settles her gaze on Grom. “Will you do it?”
He tries to look away, but the pleading in her eyes softens him. He nods.
She scans the floor, picking up pieces of debris and inspecting them, presumably looking for something with a sharp-enough edge. Grom and Freya can’t bring themselves to help. At least Freya can claim an injury, he thinks to himself. But how can I cut off her hair if it means that much to her?
Finally, Nalia finds what she’s looking for. She swims over to Grom and hands him a thin piece of metal, disfigured and burnt, but sharp enough on one side to accomplish the task at hand.
He palms it, inspecting its capacity for cutting hair, and doubting his own. “You’re sure?” he says, unable to look at her just yet. “You’re sure this is what you want?”
“Someone’s coming,” Freya says, stiffening into the classic Tracker pose. “Better get on with this.”
Nalia nods. “Do it,” she tells him. “Before anyone sees me like this.” She turns her back to him and offers up her burnt locks.
He turns the metal shard in his hand. “You’re sure?”
“Poseidon’s beard, just do it already!”
Before she’s done yelling, he’s holding her severed hair in his hands. She gasps and whirls around. He hands it to her. “I’m sorry.”
She cradles it in her hands like one of his mother’s human relics. Then, of all things, she laughs. “Can you believe that just happened? And we lived through it?”
When he doesn’t immediately respond, she shakes the mangled locks in his face. “Admit it, Triton prince. That’s the most exciting thing that’s ever happened to you. And you’re welcome.”
Grom bites back a smile and swats her hand away, but she persists until he’s forced to grab her wrist and restrain it behind her back. By now, he too senses Yudor, the Tracker trainer, approaching with others he doesn’t recognize. “I saved your life, then cut your hair,” he says, letting her go. “You’re welcome.”
The smile fades from her face. She looks back, obviously sensing the party coming to investigate the explosion. She turns back to Grom, hesitant. “About that,” she says, inching closer. The water between them seems to heat up, but that can’t be right, can it? When her nose almost touches his, she says, “Thank you for not leaving us.” Then she presses her lips against his, soft and slow, and he feels an explosion, just like the one from the death ship, only this one is coming from inside, and it feels like a hundred electric eels slithering over him, every part of him, shocking him to life.
There’s no reason to think about pulling her closer; his hands do that all on their own. There’s no reason to worry about who sees; he couldn’t care less. There’s no reason to think about his plan to woo her, then reject her; he knows now that there will never be a time when he will reject these lips.
These lips, this kiss, they’re everything he never knew he wanted.
Nalia pulls away suddenly, looking every bit as stunned as he feels. She clears her throat. “I’d better get going.” But her expression tells him that maybe she’d rather stay, that maybe she’d rather keep kissing.
Grom nods, in agreement with it all. She’d better get going. He wants her to stay. He wants to keep kissing.
She lets the carcass of her hair sink to the mud below them, and for the longest time, she only stares at it, won’t meet his eyes. The Tracker party is close, within sight, Grom knows, but still she stays, immobile and hesitant and stunning.
Then, without another word, without meeting his eyes, she turns and swims away.
* * *
He finds her with Freya, sitting on the outer rocks of The Crag, the deep chasm etched into the seafloor, where you could swim down for hours and never touch bottom. They’re both peering over the edge of the cliff, as if they’re actually contemplating going down there.
“Don’t even think about it,” Grom says. “Your lionfish spike won’t work on a giant squid.” He’s amazed how natural it feels to settle down next to Nalia and hang his fin over the ledge.
She smirks up at him. “We waited for you. You’re slow.”
He laughs. Freya would have sensed him for a while before he arrived, but did Nalia? Can she sense me as strongly as I sense her? “Some things are worth the wait.”
“You’re slow and delusional,” she says without bluster. She peeks back down into The Crag. “I want a tooth from a dangle fish.”
Grom shakes his head. Dangle fish live in the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean, where they dangle a light in front of themselves as a lure to attract unsuspecting prey. Their teeth are as long as his hand. The Crag is a good place to hunt for dangle fish. “What could you possibly need that for?”
She scrunches up her face.
Grom raises a brow at Freya, who sighs in defeat. She has gotten used to this game. “She wants it to make a gift for you. For your mating—Ow! Poseidon’s teeth, Nalia, he’s a Royal!”
Nalia points her finger in Grom’s face, almost up his left nostril. “You need to stop bullying her. Sometimes it not your business.”
Grom captures her hand and uses it to pull her closer. Her eyes go wide as she glances at his lips but she doesn’t squirm, doesn’t try to move away. He feels himself melt a little at her touch. His bones feel like the water around him. “You were making me a gift?” He glances at Freya. “Freya, how rude would it be if I asked you to—”
Freya shrugs, then spirals up and over them. “Some Triton Trackers found a new human mine,” she says, winking at Nalia, who flinches as she passes by. “Guess I could go help them set it off.” Freya told Grom that whenever the Trackers come across a mine, they set off the explosion from a distance, using rocks they hurl from the surface. She said when one of the floating metal balls burst, they all do.
“That sounds exceptionally fun,” Grom calls after her. When she’s gone, he grins at Nalia. “Don’t tell me you’re all of a sudden shy, princess. We’ve seen each other every day for the past month.”
Nalia lifts her chin. “I heard you feel the pull for me.”
That is unexpected. From the sound of her voice, she doesn’t like the idea. And he takes slight offense. Suddenly the tiny pearl in his hand feels like a burning rock from the hot beds. “Is it so bad for me to want to be your mate?”
“That’s just it. The pull is mindless. It tricks your feelings. It’s not what you want, it’s what the pull wants. To make stronger offspring. But I want something real.”
A whirlpool of relief swirls through him. She wants something real—from me. “But you have to mate with me, pull or no pull. What does it matter if the feelings are real? There could be no feelings at all, and we’d still have to mate.”
“I’d rather there were no feelings at all, than be tricked by the pull.” She crosses her arms. He’s spent enough time with her to know this is her gesture when she’s unsure.
“And if I don’t feel the pull for you?” He caresses her lips with his eyes.
She swallows. “Don’t you?”
“Hmmm,” he says. “I’m not sure. Wouldn’t you feel the pull toward me, if I felt it toward you?” He’s hoping his mother knows what she’s talking about, hoping that she didn’t just make this ridiculousness up.
She considers. “I suppose so. That’s how it’s supposed to work, anyway.”
“And I suppose it would make sense for us to be pulled together.” She tucks a short piece of hair behind her ear. “Firstborn, third-generation Royals, right? To pass on the Gifts of the Generals to our fingerlings. If anyone would be pulled, it would be us.”
“Do you feel the pull for me?”
She bristles like an anemone. “Oh, just forget it!” She turns away, but he catches her arm and whirls her around.
“I don’t believe in the pull,” he blurts. “I think it’s a bunch of superstitious muck. Besides that, I think the pull would pale in comparison to the way I feel about you.”
She lets out a tiny gasp, swirling the water in front of her and spooking some fish close by.
Grom pulls her closer, wanting this moment to be right, wanting the right words to appear in his mouth, wanting the contrary ones to disappear from hers. “If it was the pull, surely it would have brought us together before now. I’ve been old enough to sift for a mate for three seasons now. Don’t you think that if the pull were at work, I would have sought you out already?”
“I hadn’t thought about that.”
“Well, I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately. About you and me. And . . . not long ago in the Cave of Memories,” he says, “you told me that I was mean to you when we first met, at your mother’s entombing ceremony all those years ago. Do you remember that?”
She bites her lip. “I was just a fingerling when she died. Nine mating seasons old. It wasn’t what you’d said. It was how you said it. As if I was unimportant. As if it was a bother for you to be there.”
Grom nods, cringing on the inside. That had been exactly how he’d felt when he’d had to make an appearance at the ceremony—imposed upon. “I’m so sorry.” He brushes her cheek with his fingers, something he wishes he’d done all those seasons ago. Something, anything to comfort her instead of set her on edge like he did. If he hadn’t been so self-occupied, maybe they wouldn’t have avoided each other all this time, missed out on each other. Maybe they’d already be mated. The thought bears down on him with the weight of a great whale. “I have no excuse,” he says softly. “But something you said back then stuck with me. Do you remember what you told me? When I offered you my condolences?”
Nalia shakes her head. Then she sends the thrill of a thousand electric rays running through him when she rests her hand on his. “No.”
“You asked how I could understand your loss, when I didn’t even know your mother. But you were wrong. I did know her, before you were born. And I liked her.” He offers his fist between them, then opens it. When he picks up the black pearl, her eyes go round and soft, luring him closer like the light of the dangle fish she’d wanted to hunt down. “I remember she had a pearl like this one,” he tells her. “I remember how happy she was when my mother gave her a human string for it. She put it through the pearl and wore it around her neck, always.”
Nalia accepts it into her palm, rolling it around with her finger. “She was entombed with it,” she breathes. “I wanted to keep it, but I thought it would be selfish, so I didn’t ask Father for it.” She lifts her scrutiny from the pearl to his face. “This looks exactly like hers. It must have taken you forever to find one just like it.” She bites her lip. “That’s what you’ve been doing in the shallows every day before you come to meet me and Freya.”
He nods. Every single day since he was forced to cut off her hair, he’s been harvesting in the oyster beds. Sure, Freya could have used her Tracker abilities to locate him. But by Nalia’s expression, he knows that’s not the case. “You can sense me, then. The way I sense you.”
“Is that the pull?”
He grins, scratching the back of his neck. “I thought we just agreed that the pull doesn’t exist?”
“Then why do we feel this way?”
“I was thinking of calling it ‘love.’ Of course, I can’t speak for you—” He’s cut off by her lips on his, her body against his, her arms wrapped around his neck. This kiss is even better than the first. This kiss wraps heat around them, between them, through them. It makes the ocean seem inconsequential, the moon unimportant, everything else nonexistent.
It fills all the empty spaces inside him, the ones he didn’t know were there, and the ones he thought he’d already filled. And the future is laid plain before him. Their future.
* * *
“We’re almost there,” Nalia giggles, keeping her hands pressed tight on his eyes as he swims clumsily forward. He warbles a little, for effect. She giggles again.
Grom smiles. “Did you pick the farthest island from our parents, then?” Syrena custom normally calls for the male to pick the mating island, to find a private, uninhabited place for the newly mated couple to consummate their vows—which they can only do in human form. But Nalia had asked—no, begged—him to let her pick the island and set it up for their stay there. “Sort of. But the surprise part isn’t who we’re farthest from—it’s who we’re closest to.” Finally, after what seems like an entire season, his fin skims sand. “Are we there yet?”
She uncovers his eyes, and he’s shown the underwater landscape of a slowly ascending ocean floor littered with coral reefs and rocks and colorful fish. They couldn’t be more than thirty fins deep, which means the shoreline is close.
Nalia pops to the surface and motions for him to do the same. She points to their destination, and Grom drinks in the small island, the breeze dancing through the luxuriant green canopy, the lazy waves of ocean licking the shore. He holds up his hand to shield himself from the sunlight reflecting off of the bright sand, almost blinding him as his eyes adjust to dry air. Then he sees it. “Nalia,” he says, his mouth gone suddenly dry. “You can see the Big Land from here.”
She claps like a seal. “You noticed! Aren’t you excited? But that’s not the whole surprise. Let’s go on shore.” She pulls his hand, but he holds back.
“You’d better just tell me the rest of it. Because we’re not going on shore so close to the human land.”
Her face falls. “But that’s the surprise.”
Grom pinches the bridge of his nose. One thing he adores about Nalia is that she’s adventurous, fearless. She could never be boring. But this is a bit much. This is not a small law to break. This is the biggest. Through gritted teeth he says, “Why would we want to go to the Big Land?”
She won’t meet his gaze now, finding something terribly interesting to look at beneath them in the water. “Well, for one thing, it’s fun.”
“Please don’t say that means you’ve done it.”
She bites her lip.
“I have what the humans call a rowboat. I do feel bad about stealing it, but I need it to take me to shore after I change into dry human clothes on the island. I feel bad about stealing those too—”
“How long have you been doing this?” His voice sounds gruffer than he intended.
She crosses her arms now, apparently in short supply of shame. “Why don’t you ask your mother?”
“Ask her where she gets her human treasures. You can’t really believe that she scavenges for them herself.”
Actually, he did. The idea that his mother knows about—no, encourages—Nalia’s escapades makes his insides catch fire. “This has got to stop,” he says before he can hold it back. Before he can twist the words into something more diplomatic.
The way her eyes pool into huge drops of water on her face. The way her mouth curves into a soft frown. The way her crossed arms seem to relax into a gentle self-hug, as if she’s trying to hold something in and comfort herself all at the same time. She’s disappointed in him.
Without another word, she slinks below the surface.
And he learns something new about Nalia. She is very fast. He cannot keep pace with her, but finds that the best he can do is not get left behind altogether. She moves farther and farther ahead, deflecting the attempts of others who try to greet her. They toss confused looks in his direction as they realize he’s actually chasing her, calling out to her. And she’s ignoring him.
He can’t imagine the size of the spectacle they’re making, but right now he doesn’t care. He knew they would eventually have their first fight. Triton’s trident, they started out fighting, didn’t they? He knew they couldn’t live in euphoria for their next two hundred years together. But he’d been expecting to argue about silly things first, like who is the better kisser, or what to name their first fingerling. Things that he’d be more than willing to surrender on.
But this fight is big. It’s not just about her interest in humans and he knows it. It’s about her freedom. And about how much control he’ll have over it once they’re mated. This is not a fight he’s anticipated. He’s always known she is fiercely independent, but he thought he could reason with her, coax her into seeing that there is always more than one point of view to any situation. And maybe he could, if the first words out of his mouth hadn’t sounded like some unbending command.
He curses under his breath. “Nalia, please stop,” he calls out. “Please.”
She doesn’t. Already they’ve passed the central hub of Syrena society, and they’re well on their way past the Human Pass, where they were nearly killed. Just one more sandbar and they’ll be close to another human shore altogether.
He reaches the hump of the last sandbar. And freezes.
She tries to stop too, but her momentum catches up with her and she slides into the human mine. Hundreds of round metal balls floating above long chains, waiting to be touched, to be set off, to explode. It’s a trap meant to kill humans, but now Nalia, his Nalia, is inside the mess of it, the slightest move of her fin setting the chains swaying haphazardly. There’s barely enough room for her to fit between them, let alone maneuver with any kind of speed. It’s a miracle that she’s still alive, that the wake of her entrance didn’t knock two of the balls together. It will be an even greater miracle to get her out.
“Don’t move,” he says, terror clutching at his throat like an actual hand. This can’t be happening.
She nods, eyes wide. “I’m sorry,” she whispers. “This is my fault.”
“I’m going to get you out,” he tells her, but he has no idea how.
“Grom. Don’t come any closer. Get away.”
He eases forward. “Be still.”
“If you come any closer I’ll set them off on purpose.”
“Nalia. Don’t be stupid. I can help.”
“This is how it’s going to work. You’re going to swim in that direction until I can’t see you anymore. Then I’m going to get myself out of here.”
He crosses his arms. “You’ve lost your mind if you think I’m leaving.”
“There’s no point in both of us . . . Just go. I can get out. But I can’t concentrate with you so close to—just go. Please.”
They both hear it at the same time. Two distinct plunks from the surface. Grom looks past Nalia. Two metal ovals, distinctly human-made, with red angular symbols painted near the tails. Two miniature death ships falling sinking falling.
No no no no.
There is no time.
A flash of light. Once. Twice. Uncountable times.
* * *
He senses Freya first, the closest to him. Then his mother, his father. Even Nalia’s father, King Antonis. But the pulse so familiar to him, the one he cherishes most, the one he’d sense half the world away, is gone.
He knows. Before he opens his eyes. Before he looks up at what he knows will be Freya’s stricken face. Before he feels the pain of his burns over the length of him. He knows.
“She’s dead,” he says. There is no question.
“I’m sorry,” Freya chokes out. “I’m so sorry, Grom.”
It takes great effort for him to open his eyes, since he doesn’t see the point in doing so ever again. He drinks in the somber faces surrounding him, keeping their distance from him and each other in different corners of his chamber. He tries to push himself up out of the pit where he sleeps, but groans when pain shoots through him.
Antonis swims over to him, but doesn’t offer to help him up. Instead, the Poseidon king hovers over him. “What did you do to my daughter?”
Grom’s mother gasps. “Antonis, please—”
But the Poseidon king holds up his hand, cutting her off. “I’m not talking to you. I’m talking to your son.” He returns his glare to Grom. “Answer me.”
Grom swallows, suddenly aware of how it all looks. People saw them having a disagreement, saw him chase after her, saw her angry with him. “We got into an argument. She got angry and left. I followed her. Into a mine. A new one. She was trying to get out, but the humans set off the explosion.” It’s as if he’s recounting what he ate for his morning meal. The words feel hollow, meaningless, callous as he says them and he wonders if they sound that way too, or if it’s just the numbness taking over, oozing out from the vicinity of his heart.
Nalia is dead.
Nalia is dead.
Nalia is dead.
“What were you arguing about?” Antonis says, his voice condescending.
Grom closes his eyes again. What is he to say? That Nalia admitted she made regular trips to the Big Land? That his own mother was part of it? That she wanted to continue to break the most serious of all Syrena laws?
No, he can’t say that. He won’t. He will not allow the memory of her to be tarnished in that way. Will not allow the guilt his mother would go through. No, he’ll absorb the responsibility for it all. Keep it close to him. Antonis can think what he wants.
“I’d rather not say,” Grom says, finally.
“Grom,” his mother coaxes.
“No.” He sets his jaw. Stares at the knobby rock ceiling of his chamber.
Antonis comes unhinged. “Of course you’d rather not, you slithering eel. Because you killed her! Because you’ve hated her since the moment you saw her, and you found a way out of your mating ceremony and took it.”
“Antonis, old friend, don’t be unreasonable,” Grom’s father interjects.
Antonis turns on the Triton king. “That’s very easy for you to say, isn’t it, old friend? Especially when you know I can’t prove any of it. Don’t worry. Your only heir is safe.” He whirls back to Grom, nostrils flared. “But I swear by Triton’s trident, you’ll never mate. Not ever. Your seed will die with you.”
Grom is about to tell him that he’d never want to mate with anyone other than Nalia anyway, but his mother interrupts. “What are you saying, Antonis? The law pledges your firstborn heir to him, to pass on the Gifts of the Generals. Your next heir must be mated to—”
Antonis laughs then, a laugh full of bitterness and loss and poison. “There will be no heir. I will never take another mate. The Gifts of the Generals will die with his generation.”
“Antonis, I know you’re hurting,” she says. “But this is not the proper way to mourn. If you do this, the Gifts—our future—will be lost. Both kingdoms will suffer.”
“Both kingdoms?” he snarls. “There is only one kingdom. The Triton territory no longer exists.” With this, he leaves. Freya presses her back into the wall and bows her head, giving him as wide a berth as possible.
Grom’s mother grasps his hand. “Don’t you worry about any of this, son. Antonis will come around.”
Grom knows she’s wrong. Antonis has lost too much. His mate. His daughter. His reasons to care. But all the things Antonis lost today, Grom lost too. His mate. His prospect for offspring. His ability to care what happens next.
Even so, Grom can’t help but think the Syrena lost more than both of them. A princess, a future queen, yes. But also a hope, one passed down from generation to generation. A hope for a prosperous future. A hope for protection from the humans once they inevitably invade every part of the ocean.
Not just a daughter, a mate, a princess, a queen. All of these things, yes. But so much more.
Today they lost the Gifts of the Generals. Their legacy.
“Legacy Lost” copyright © 2011 by Anna Banks
Art copyright © 2011 by Goñi Montes