Check out Of Neptune, the conclusion to Anna Banks’ bestselling Syrena Legacy, available May 13th from Feiwel & Friends!
Emma, who is half human and half Syrena, and her Syrena love Galen, need time together. Alone. Away from the kingdoms of Poseidon and Triton. Emma’s grandfather, the Poseidon king, suggests the two visit a small town called Neptune.
Neptune is home to both Syrena and Half Breeds alike. But Emma and Galen didn’t sign up to be peacemakers between the ocean and land-dwelling, freshwater Syrena. They didn’t bargain for meeting a charming Half Breed named Reed, who can barely disguise his feelings for Emma. And they especially didn’t expect to find themselves in the middle of a power struggle that threatens not only their love, but their ocean kingdoms.
I dig my bare feet into the sand, getting just close enough to the water for the mid-morning waves to tickle my toes. Each lazy wave licks my feet, then retreats as if beckoning me into the Atlantic Ocean, whispering of adventure. Of mischief.
Of peace-and-freaking quiet.
Which is all I want after this past summer. What with Jagen’s attempt to take over the kingdoms, our near discovery by humans, me leading a wall of fish to an underwater tribunal— we barely had room to breathe. And then our breath was all but stolen away from us when Rachel drowned.
We deserve a break from it all, Galen and I. But it doesn’t look like we’re getting one.
Behind me, the wind hauls with it the occasional shout erupting from my house. The bellows of Galen and his older brother Grom taint the air with a rancor that repels me farther from the house and deeper into the water. I roll up my pajama pants and, letting the saltwater have its way with my calves, try to ignore the words I can make out between the squawks of seagulls overhead.
Words like “loyalty” and “privacy” and “law.” I cringe when I hear the word “grief.” That word comes from Grom, and after it, no words come from Galen. It’s a kind of silence I’ve come to recognize from him. One filled with anguish, torment, guilt, and the overwhelming need to say or do something to hide it.
But there is no hiding that Rachel’s death mauled the deepest parts of him. She was more than just his assistant. She was his closest human friend. Maybe the others don’t see the depths of it. If they did, they wouldn’t throw it in his face or use it against him. But I do see it. I know what it’s like to have so much heartache you come to despise the air that keeps you alive.
Galen doesn’t cry. He doesn’t talk about her. There seems to be a part of Galen that belonged to Rachel, and she took that part with her. What’s left of him is trying hard to function without the missing piece, but it can’t quite coordinate. Like a car running on empty.
I want to help him, to tell him I know how he feels. But comforting someone is different than being comforted. In a way, it’s harder. I went through this after Dad died of cancer. After my best friend Chloe was attacked by a shark. But I still don’t know what to do or say to make it better for Galen. Because only many, many sunrises can soften the pain. And it hasn’t been long enough for that yet.
I feel bad that I left my mom in the kitchen to deal with this mess by herself. Poseidon princess that she is, this is a difficult problem to navigate alone. But I can’t go back in yet. Not until I think of a fantastic excuse for why I thought it was okay to abandon a very serious and very-important-to-Galen conversation. I should be there with them in the kitchen, standing beside him, arms crossed, giving Grom the stank eye to reiterate that I am not his Royal subject and that I’m on Galen’s side no matter what that might involve.
But it’s hard to face Grom like that when I’m kinda sorta in agreement with him. Especially since the Triton king is one of the most intimidating people I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet. He would hone in on my reluctance. He would see through me if I put up pretenses about the trip.
This stupid trip.
Last year at prom—well, our own version of prom, which involved dancing underwater in Armani—we promised each other we would take a trip to the mountains. To get away from it all, or whatever. And at first, this whole summer jaunt inland with Galen seemed like a good idea to me. Actually, it seemed like unfiltered heaven. He’s adamant that he wants to be alone with me. To make up for all the time we lost mutually denying our feelings for each other. Then the time we spent fending off Jagen’s advance on both the kingdoms. And what could be better than that? Spending private time with Galen is about a ten on my Ecstasy-O-Meter. Of course I want to steal back all of the lost time—I’d steal the time before we actually met if I could somehow bribe the universe to grant wishes.
But the bigger reason—the real reason—I think Galen wants to get away is Rachel. I know he wants a change in scenery. He wants to get away from the house they shared together. Especially from the now maddeningly quiet kitchen where she used to click around in stilettos while preparing him delectable seafood dishes. The house used to smell of cooking food and swirling Italian perfume and possibly gunpowder if you came on the right day.
And don’t I know how that feels? Waking up every day in my bedroom full of all things Chloe was like getting a daily, fastacting injection of painful memories. Staring at my dad’s empty place setting at the table felt like watching vultures of the past circling around his empty chair. But Galen hasn’t allowed himself to start the grieving process. And this trip seems to be an attempt to keep it at bay even longer. Which can’t be healthy. And since it’s not healthy, I feel more like an enabler than a supporter.
Either way, I should go back now. I should go back and be there for Galen and tell Grom that no matter his reasons Galen needs this trip. Then express my own concerns with Galen privately. I should be there for him now and support him in front of the others, just as he would for me—just as he’s already done for me.
I’ll need to explain myself—why I left during the conversation in the first place—say something so that I don’t look like the jerk that I am. Tact hasn’t been my specialty lately. I’m thinking Galen’s sister Rayna is contagious, and she’s somehow infected me with her rudeness. But maybe tact isn’t what I need. Maybe I should try her truth. The truth would only embarrass Galen, I decide. And make him feel even more alone.
Or maybe I’m just being a quivering chicken about the whole thing.
I guess I have to take an honest-to-God stab at tact. Lovely.
As soon as I turn to go back, I sense my grandfather in the water. The pulse of the Poseidon King Antonis coils around my legs like a tightening string. Fan-freaking-tastic. Just what we need. Another Royal opinion on the matter of our road trip.
I wait for him to surface, trying to think of a great excuse as to why he shouldn’t go to the house. I’ve got nothing. Anything I say will come off as unwelcoming, when really, I’d like to see him more often. He’s high up on the list of people—well, people who have a fin—I’d like to spend time with. But now is not a good time for spending.
It’s not long before my excuse to shoo him away presents itself in the form of Naked Grandfather. I cover my eyes, irritation bubbling up against my will. “Really? You really forget every single time you change into human form to put shorts on? You cannot go in the house like that.”
Grandfather sighs. “My apologies, young Emma. But you must admit, all these human traditions are a bit overwhelming. Where might I find a short?”
That clothes seem like a mountainous burden to him reminds me that our worlds are spectacularly different. And that I could learn a lot from him. Without unshielding my eyes, I point toward the water, in the exact opposite direction I know Galen has a pair hidden. When in doubt, stall. “Try over there. Under the slab of rock. And they’re called shorts, not ‘a short.’ ”
“I’m afraid you’ll have to bore someone else with your human expressions, young one. I couldn’t possibly care less.” I hear him disappear under the water, surfacing several seconds later. “The short is not here.”
I shrug. “Guess you can’t go in then.” This is going better than I thought it would.
I can practically feel him crossing his arms at me. Here we go.
“You think I’m here to object to your going inland with Galen.”
My mouth drops open. And I stutter excessively when I say, “Well. Um. Aren’t you?” Because so far, he’s done nothing but play hall monitor between me and Galen. A few months ago, he walked in on us while we were making out, and Galen nearly passed out because of it. Ever since then Galen has been terrified of disappointing the Poseidon king, so Grandfather’s negative opinion on this trip might actually be a game changer.
Which is why he cannot go in the house.
I hear Grandfather melt into the water, and he confirms it with, “You can turn around now.” Only his shoulders and chest are above the waves. He smiles. It’s the kind of adoring smile I’ve always imagined a grandfather gives his grandchildren when they bring him their most hideous Crayola creation. “I’m certainly not happy about you going inland, of course. I had wanted to spend a bit more time together, too. But I know from past experience that Poseidon princesses are not inclined to care about my opinion.”
It’s kind of cool to be referred to as a princess, even though my mother is the princess of Poseidon territory. Still, I raise a get-to-the-point brow. Grandfather responds best to frank and direct.
“I’m here to speak to you, Emma. Only you.”
Mortified, I wonder if there exists a Syrena expression for “the birds and the bees talk.” Probably there is, and it’s probably some god-awful analogy having to do with plankton or worse.
In the distance, we hear a shout of outrage. He cocks his head at me. “Why aren’t you in there helping your prince?”
If I thought I felt guilty before… But then I remember that this business is not for Grandfather’s nose. I’m actually doing Galen a favor by stalling now. “Because if I stay there any longer, I’ll grow a beard from all the testosterone hovering in the air.” Of course, my answer is over his head; he indicates this with a bored-silly eye roll. Syrena do not know—nor apparently care— what testosterone is.
“If you don’t wish to tell me, that is fine,” he says. “I have trust in your judgment.” More shouting from behind me. Maybe my judgment sucks after all. I’m about to excuse myself, when he says, “It’s better this way, that they’re distracted. What I have to say is for your ears only, young Emma.” A seagull overhead drops a bomb then, and it lands cleanly on Grandfather’s shoulder. He mutters some fishy expletive and swishes saltwater over the offending white glob, setting it off to sea. “Why don’t you come into the water, so we can close some of the distance between us? I’d rather someone didn’t overhear. Here, I’ll change back to Syrena form if that will make you more comfortable.”
I wade into the Atlantic, not caring to roll up my pajamas this time. I pass a large crab who looks like he’s tempted to nip at me. I squat in the water, submerging my entire head, and come face-to-face with the crab. “If you pinch me,” I tell it, “I’ll pick you up and throw you on the beach for the gulls.” The Gift of Poseidon—the ability to talk to fish—does have its advantages. Bossing around marine life is just one of them.
I’ve come to realize crabs in particular throw mini temper tantrums. I wonder if that’s where the term “crabby” came from in the first place. He scuttles away, as if I’ve ruined his whole day. When I resurface and reach Grandfather, I can no longer touch the ground. Gliding up to him, I say, “So? We’re as private as we can be.”
Then he smiles at me like I am the reason he is floating instead of the waves or his powerful fin. “Before you leave on your adventure, young Emma, I need to tell you about a town called Neptune.”
Galen grabs an orange from the fruit basket in front of him. If only he could channel his rage into the orange. Somehow inject his fury into the confines of the peel instead of showing his indignation all over his face.
The same way his older brother Grom wears indifference as a second skin.
But I am not Grom, the impervious Triton king. Galen squeezes the fruit so hard it becomes a disemboweled mess of peel, seeds, and juice on the kitchen counter. It feels good to squeeze the innards out of something. Galen can think of a million feelings inside himself right now that he’d like to pour out onto the counter next to the juice of the orange. But it would have no effect on Grom. Grom is immune to feelings.
Grom rolls his eyes, while Nalia casually grabs some paper towels from the cabinet.
“Was that really necessary?” Grom says.
Nalia makes quick work of cleaning up the orange. Galen gives her an apologetic look. He would have cleaned it up eventually, after he and Grom came to an agreement on the matter of this road trip. But then Nalia returns a look of pity. Galen’s so tired of everyone’s pity. But Nalia’s pity isn’t about Rachel. Nalia feels sympathetic toward Galen because she thinks he won’t win this argument. That he is no match for Grom.
Galen decides she can clean up the mess after all.
“Actually, I could think of something better to squeeze than an orange,” Galen drolls. Like his brother Grom’s hard head, for instance. Or maybe his throat. Rachel’s expression “take a chill pill” comes to mind. Galen counts to ten, just as she taught him. Then he counts to twenty.
“You have much maturing to do, brother,” says Grom.
“And you have an entire kingdom to run, Highness. Which is why I don’t understand why we’re still here. And those are my boxers.”
Grom raises a brow, then shrugs. “I thought they seemed small.”
“Grom—” Nalia starts, but he cuts her off with a huff.
“You just graduated from human school a few days ago, Galen. You don’t want to relax for a little while?” Grom takes a sip of his bottled water, then screws the cap back on so tightly it makes a cracking sound.
“High school,” Galen says. “We graduated from high school. If you keep calling everything ‘human’ this and ‘human’ that—”
“I know, I know.” Grom waves his hand in dismissal. “Very well. High school. What is so high about high school, anyway? No, no, don’t bother to answer. I don’t care enough to know. But, little brother, why are you in such a hurry to leave the beaches?”
“For the hundredth time,” Galen grits out, “I’m not in a hurry to leave the beaches. I’m in a hurry to spend time with Emma before we go to college, or before the Archives change their mind about their agreement with us, or before something else catastrophic happens. Can you not handle the kingdom without my help, brother? You should have just said as much.”
This cracks the shell that is Grom’s face. “Careful, Galen. Will you never learn that diplomacy is an asset?”
“So is being direct,” Galen grumbles. He runs a hand through his hair. “Look, I honestly don’t know what the problem is here. We’re taking a two-week road trip.”
“Our treaty with the Archives is still delicate, Galen. It takes time to build trust. Your disappearing with Emma for so many turns of the sun will cause murmuring. You know this. And we’ve just witnessed how powerful murmuring can be.”
Galen rolls his eyes. Grom’s referring to Jagen’s near takeover of the houses of Triton and Poseidon, a conspiracy that started with hushed whispers and speculation, and nearly cost the Royals their freedom and throne. But this is different. “Why would the kingdoms care about our spending private time together?” He doesn’t mean to yell. But he doesn’t regret it, either.
“Well, for starters,” Nalia injects so calmly it irritates Galen, “I’m sure there will be rumors flying about whether or not you’re respecting the law and not mating before your ceremony.”
Galen can’t argue that. And he can’t argue that the rumors would be somewhat founded. He can barely keep his hands off of Emma. And she’s not exactly helping the situation, being such a willing recipient of his frequently wandering hands. He pinches the bridge of his nose. “They’ll just have to trust us. They could give us the benefit of the doubt on this one thing.”
Grom shrugs. “They could. But they’re also eager to get to know the new Poseidon princess. She needs to spend more time in the kingdoms.”
“So they can whisper about the Half-Breed behind her back?” The very thought makes Galen want to pick up another orange. Still, he knows Grom is right. Galen wants Emma to spend more time in the water, too. Dr. Milligan said she may eventually be able to hold her breath for much longer. Right now she’s only able to hold it for hours at a time. Maybe that could be extended to days, with enough practice. And if it could, he and Emma wouldn’t have to alternate between land and sea so often once they had mated.
“The more she’s around them, the less her presence will affect them, Galen. They’re giving her a chance. The least you can do is reciprocate. Someday, they won’t even notice that she’s a Half-Breed. Or at least, they’ll learn to accept it and move on.”
He must be joking. Everything about Emma screams HalfBreed, starting with her pale skin and white hair and ending with the fact that she doesn’t have a fin. A stark contrast in every way to the Syrena.
Galen stands up from the bar stool. Maybe stretching his legs will keep him from satisfying the urge to jump across the counter. Where has all this anger come from? “It’s just two weeks, Grom. Two weeks is all I’m asking for. Antonis is okay with it.” At least, Antonis hasn’t expressed any feelings against their trip. And there I go again, raising my voice. In front of a different audience, Grom would be forced to admonish him.
“Antonis is in agreement because he’s so eager to please Emma, having never known his granddaughter. You’re my brother. I’ve put up with your antics for too many seasons already.”
“What does that have to do with anything? Why can’t you just give me your approval so we can move on?”
“Because I get the feeling you’re going whether or not you obtain my approval. Tell me I’m wrong, Galen.”
Galen shakes his head. “I want your approval.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“It’s all I can give you.” He does want Grom’s approval. Truly he does. But Grom is right—Galen wants to get as far away from here as possible. Even if it means infuriating his older brother. The need to flee is almost overwhelming, and he’s not sure why. The only thing he’s sure of is that he wants Emma with him. Her touch, her voice, her laugh. It’s like a seaweed salve to the gaping wounds inside of him.
Grom sighs, pulling open the refrigerator door. With deliberation he places the half-empty bottle of water next to a container full of green something. “I appreciate your honesty. You’re no longer a fingerling. Emma is of the age of independence by human standards. You both know the difference between right and wrong. Your decisions are yours to make. But I have to wonder, little brother. I have to ask. Are you sure this is what you need? Because two weeks does not change everything. Some things… Some things cannot be undone, Galen. I hope you understand that.”
“Stop making everything about Rachel.” Please.
“Stop making nothing about Rachel. Grieve her, Galen.”
“So I have your approval then?” Galen shoves the bar stool back in place. “Because Emma and I have to pack.”
I wish Emma would come back in.
Of Neptune © Anna Banks, 2014