CHAPTER ONE: THE SCARRED SEA
The sea was silent. Here, in what the humans called the Dark Seas, death had stilled the usual murmur of currents and chattering clicks of dolphins.
Here, it was empty.
Nadine had never felt the emptiness more than she did now, surrounded by shattered remnants of the past. She knelt on the seafloor, pressing her hands into sand that shifted under her touch, revealing jagged shards of broken shell that had once secreted the whispers of history. The grotto's walls spiralled high above her head, their shelves bare and listless.
She had once heard of humans holding shells to their ears to listen to the ocean's croon; she wondered if they understood what they heard, or if the sounds echoed meaningless in their minds. For the Mer, the whispers and roars had been the language of the sea, words recorded in echoes for future generations to learn and memorize.
Except now, there was no more history. She sucked in her breath. All gone; or, at least, all records the Mer had. Gone in a sweep of sea-fire and blood, along with the people that had kept them—the Crystal-Keepers, preservers of history and peace in a time of civil war.
The civil war amongst the Mer tribes was over now, but the pain had only begun. Nadine gritted her teeth and flexed her tail, scales shedding like tears. Come on, she thought, forcing herself to concentrate on her hands. Squeezing her eyes tight, she strained to awaken the power that lay dormant within her, struggled to force it from her soul to her hands. She knew it was there, but it was like a chunk of dead coral.
More scales sprang from her body as her tail lashed. Come on!
Nothing. Just heaviness on her chest, and anger that welled thick as waves.
She lurched upward, whirling through the water in an effort to uncoil the magick in her breast and her own frustration. Her tail jerked and swung, its tattered fins grazing the walls with a thin screech. Come on! As if repeating the words would make them true.
Almaira. The voice was her own, but the word was another's. Almaira, Nadine. All will be well. She repeated the phrase over and over, sinking back down to the sand and letting her mother's words flutter across her mind.
All will be well. Ironic words, she thought bitterly. Nothing was well at all—the sea was in ruins, her family slaughtered, and the only mother she could remember, the mother who had adopted her after her parents were slain with all the other Crystal-Keepers, vanished.
And yet still she came here, to the carcass of the Crystal-Keepers' village. Why? She sifted her fingers through the sand, her eyelids fluttering closed. Here, in this desolate place, she could still sense her parents, though they had died years and years ago. For years, her adopted mother Nyla had brought her here to mourn and remember. Even though Nyla was gone, Nadine could not forget. In every silent current that swept past her cheek, she imagined her mother's loving lips. In every glint of sunlight filtering through the grotto's open ceiling, she saw her father's shimmering form.
Deep in her mind, she listened to the voices she had memorized. The ache of sorrow rippled sweetly through her, relaxing her taut shoulders and pressing her against the seafloor, splayed and limp. Scales tumbled into the sand, and something unknotted within her. She dared not open her eyes, but she felt the soft glow unfurling from within and cascading through her limbs. The magick seeped from her skin, leaving a faint tremor in her blue-green veins.
And then it was over, and she felt empty again, the magick as dormant and cold as ice. Yet when she opened her eyes, there, poking through the sand, was a tiny red flower.
Hope. She nearly choked on it, tracing the petals with her fingers and breathless with the beauty of it.
If only she could control this…this thing within her! If only she could make the flowers bud and the trees bloom whenever she wished! The whales and dolphins would return, the fish would wax plentiful, and the children would not starve! Her people could flourish and rule the seas as they had once before.
I should have known I would find you here.
Nadine started, lurching to a kneel and spinning around. Her tail hovered above the flower, concealing it from sight. Esli. She didn't know what else to say, so she bit her lip and tried to calm the frantic hammering of her heart.
The Mer girl waited in the grotto's circular entrance, her thin, slender frame like a shadow. You weren't with the other gardeners. Why?
This question was easy enough to answer, though for Esli's sake she winced. Mara and the other sea-witches were badgering us, as usual, about restoring their citadels and weaponries first.
Esli said nothing, but she drifted through the doorway, her sea-black hair wavering behind her like a flag. Why here? she asked finally, plopping down and flexing her tail. Her eyes glittered violet in the blue-grey dimness, a light unto themselves. Many a confession she had unnerved out of Nadine, but not now. This place and its history—its sorrow and its secrets—were Nadine's alone.
She shrugged and doodled a dolphin in the sand with her finger. It came out looking more like a shark, and she made a face and smudged it out. It's solitary.
And don't tell me you don't enjoy the history of the place. Nothing like a civil war to add to the records.
What records? Nadine snapped before she could constrain herself. She flushed, whispering, So many died here, Esli, and so much was lost. Our people's legends and past—
Esli interrupted her, voice sharp as shark teeth. Many die, everywhere. And there will be more lost, Nadine, than our past, if we cannot defeat the humans. You think starvation is cruel, but there are far worse things. She stopped. Anyway, I did not come here to argue with you about history and such. You've been summoned.
Nadine stiffened. What for?
One of the Queen's guards was killed in a minor rebel attack—do not fear, she said, her tone lazy and indifferent, the rebels were all executed. A shiver coursed down Nadine's spine. As the Queen needs all the protection she can get from those she trusts, the Vizier decided on you to be his replacement.
The Vizier. She should have known. Nadine was all too aware of the flower hidden beneath the fluttering gauze of her fins. The Vizier suspected her, and if he knew, she would be nothing better than his weapon against the sea-witches, who, like Nadine herself, questioned the extent of his power over the queen.
You should be happy, Esli went on. You won't have to do all the boring gardening.
Nadine ignored her, struck by a sudden premonition. Which guard?
Esli glanced at her, brows twitching with surprise. Oh. I don't know. Wait—it was… Rurriel? Yes, I believe that was his name. She shrugged, but her eyes held a strange glint. It happens. At least the queen is safe.
Yes. The word echoed hollow even in Nadine's ears. Rurriel. Her stomach knotted, vaulting with nausea. But she swallowed the cry battering against her teeth and coiled her tail to keep the scales from shedding.
They sat there without saying anything, Esli inspecting her nails, Nadine staring at her hands as they clenched and unclenched. Rurriel had been her first love, though at merely sixteen winters old, Nadine knew she understood little of the word.
But he had joked with her and laughed a lot, yet never at her, and he had never mocked the scars across her stomach that made it bulge in places. He had picked her flowers despite the Head Gardener scowling at him and yelling at him not to. What are flowers good for, if they cannot be shared? he had asked before tickling Nadine's tail with his fins and startling a smile from her.
Indeed. She swallowed. She should be sharing her gift, offering it for use to her people.
If only she hadn't seen what they would use it for.
Let's leave, Esli said abruptly, hauling herself up and curling toward the entrance. There are too many memories here.
Nadine followed, glancing only once over her shoulder. The little red flower swayed, its petals like bloodied fingers, in a tiny slant of sunlight. ***
The Dark Seas lay on the outermost reaches of the Mer Valley, a plain of white sand surrounded by undersea mountains on three sides, and the Royal's Reef shelf on the last. Very few Mer dared wander into its waters, and even fewer ventured beyond. Nadine had lived on the precipice between the Dark Seas and the Beyond; when she was younger, she had wondered and listened to her father's stories about the beasts that lurked there and the treasures long lost to its abyss.
The treasures of the greatest Mer warriors lie out there, he had said. Someday, I want to find them.
In your dreams, her mother said, laughing. Yet there had been a longing in her voice, for something more, something beyond the smear of war.
Nadine stared at the mountains inching across the seascape, towering so high they almost seemed to touch the surface and the sun. Their shadow fell across the valley, and she shivered from the chill.
Esli was already far ahead of her, her scales blinking in the watery light. Come on, Nadine!
Can't keep the Vizier waiting. Or Telm. Nadine scowled. She loses Rurriel forever, and it's only business. Esli's away from Telm for a moment, and it's all hurrying to return to him.
So she dawdled, because she knew it bothered Esli and because it was about the only form of defiance she had the courage to undertake—and the only kind she could get away with. Political dissenters and soldiers suspected of treason were executed, while friends that veered too far into sympathy for the other side vanished from their beds.
Nadine lingered over the seafloor, following the path of a single despondent sea slug. Her stomach grumbled. She was reaching to grab it when another hand snatched it first. She glanced up into the flashing amber eyes of a Mer child. Her heart panged. The little girl's hair was nothing more than thin, straggling wisps of gold around hollowed eyes and full lips chapped by starvation.
Hello, Nadine murmured. What's your name? What's your tribe? She glanced at the girl's tail, but it was bright orange-red, and she knew she was being stupid. It was old-fashioned to think that the Mer only married within their tribe; over the years leading up to the war, there had been so much intermarriage that tail colours meant nothing anymore.
The girl's eyes narrowed, and she hugged the sea slug to her chest. You're a soldier, aren't you?
Nadine showed the girl her arm, bare of the warrior's brand. No.
Not yet, anyway. Then you'll be just like them. The child jerked her head toward Esli, who had stopped and whirled around, hair snapping like a whip. You'll be fighting the humans and forgetting about us.
We're not at war with the humans. But the words tasted like lies in Nadine's mouth. If they weren't at war now, they soon would be.
The little girl knew it, too. She scowled, stuck out her tongue, and zipped away to a little driftwood hut. Another face peeked out the doorway, before the little girl ducked inside and slammed the door shut.
Are you finished making friends? Esli asked, crossing her arms. They'd just as soon kill you, you know.
Nadine stared at the hut, her chest yawning and sore. Why did she feel so, so… rejected?
It's sad, she whispered, hugging herself as she turned away, how much we focus on fighting the humans, when— She stopped herself.
Esli glared at her. If we don't unite to bring the humans down, there will be civil war again, she snapped. But I don't expect someone from the Dolphin Tribe to understand politics.
Nadine bristled. Maybe not your kind of politics, she thought, but stayed quiet. Being underestimated was a way of life, and, in a way, it was a blessing. If they all thought she was stupid, they wouldn't discover her secret.
Yet, part of her wanted someone to know, someone she could confide in. Esli was her only friend, but she was too close to Telm for Nadine's comfort. Besides, friendship didn't mean very much anymore. Friends had betrayed each other throughout the civil war—and despite what the Vizier and the Queen said, Nadine knew it wasn't over. ***
The Coral Castle was a ghost of what it had once been. Its dilapidated ruins pierced the sea like the point of a rusted sword. Looking at it made Nadine's heart hurt. Nyla had told her stories of the glory days, of gardens bursting with flowers and octopi slithering between the windows. Sharks had drifted from room to room, fed table scraps and nuzzling the princess's toes.
Then the civil war had happened, and now the princess was a queen, and the castle was a prison. Nadine felt its tug like the heaviness of seaweed wraps binding her wrists. She rubbed them just to make sure she was free.
Esli passed the guards posted at the yawning doorway without a glance. Nadine slowed, inspecting each face. Most stared straight ahead, but one caught her eye and shook his head. It was all she needed. Rurriel had left no scales behind for mementos to the mourners—he had simply melted into foam and curled to the surface, gone forever.
Nadine nodded, not trusting herself to speak. Like the Crystal-Keepers' grotto, the castle was silent. But it was a different kind of silence. The grotto had been frozen in time, untouched, indifferent to what lay ahead. It was a refuge for those who grieved the past and wanted to wallow in their sorrows a little while longer. The castle stood breathless in anticipation, a shark awaiting its time to attack.
Esli twisted through the castle's crumbled halls, massive chunks missing from the walls. Guards were posted on either side of each hole. Nadine counted five gaps in just the one passage. No wonder the queen was in desperate need of more warriors.
She bit back a snort. She was no fighter. The reason she had been 'demoted' to rebuilding duties, to tending the fish and plants in the Queen's Dome, was because the first time she had wielded a weapon, she had nearly poked the Vizier's eye out. Part of her wished she hadn't missed.
So why, she wondered, out of all the remnant of the Mer he could boss about, did he choose her? The answer was too obvious for comfort.
She stopped in the middle of the passageway. Unlike human palaces, those of the Mer have no floor, as they do not have the feet necessary to use them. So when Nadine paused, she began to sink toward the sand below.
Fingers caught her elbow, jerking her upright. A shudder coursed through her at the familiar hand, and she forced herself not to rip out of its grasp. Steady. The voice was low, quiet, the sort of voice that had once soothed sharks and bridled them without fear.
There you are. Esli approached, cocking a brow at the boy beside Nadine. Where's your father, Telm? I've brought him the newest recruit.
Nadine glanced at him, trying to gauge his reaction. Telm's brow furrowed and the corners of his handsome mouth twitched. With the queen. As usual.
What are they talking about?
How should I know? he snapped. He tells me nothing.
For once, Esli seemed contrite. She bit her lip and tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, eyes focussed on the sea beyond the holes in the wall. Should we go ahead and get her branded? she asked.
Irritation pinched Nadine. She wanted to remind Esli that she was right here, that she wasn't a child to be talked over.
Telm shrugged. Might as well. I'm sure that's one action we might do independently without his believing we're trying to usurp his authority.
Nadine stiffened. She would much rather wait. But almost as though he sensed her reluctance, Telm's fingers dug into her arm. It's just a brand, Nadine. Get over it.
She gritted her teeth and swallowed the words biting her tongue.
So they dragged her out to the training plains, where they marked her with sword and sea-fire. She screamed and thrashed, tail lunging in a wild attempt to inflict as much pain as she was suffering. But Telm held her down, his weight pressing on her stomach and choking the breath out of her.
All the while, she wondered when she would ever get a choice.
When it was over, Esli leaned back, setting the branding tools aside. That wasn't so difficult, was it? Her tone, certainly patronizing, was almost mocking.
Nadine traced the mark carved into her skin, hissing through her teeth at the pain. Two sets of Mer fins sprouted from a straight line struck through the middle of the brand, meant to signify that the warrior was now dedicated to the queen.
The oath. Telm touched her hand. She was surprised how gentle his fingers could be, when they weren't pushing her around or down into the dirt.
Nadine's tongue felt heavy in her mouth. With difficulty, she recited the pledge of fealty: To the queen, my heart, my sword. To my kin, my scales, my fins. If I ever break this oath, kill me for my honour's sake.
Telm leaned forward and kissed her forehead, and the ritual was over. Nadine's only succour was that now, she was just like her father had been—a guard, even though his allegiance had been by choice and not by desperation.
Now, Esli said, and her eyes glinted, my favourite part. Weapons! She and Telm brought Nadine to the armoury, a carefully-guarded room stockpiled with glimmering scabbards and weapons confiscated from shipwrecks on the Royal's Reef.
Nadine grabbed the first weapon that caught her eye—a human dagger with a blood-red stone embedded in its hilt. Something about it sparked her fancy, like a pleasant memory she just couldn't recall. With it, she received armour fashioned from braided seaweed and clamshells.
There, Esli said. You look like a warrior, at least.
She didn't feel like one. Esli knew it, too. Nadine could see the disappointed flicker in her gaze, the barest trembling of her shoulders in a deep-hearted sigh.
Telm looked from one to the other. Where did you get your scars, Nadine?
Nadine started at the unexpected question. Staring down at the faint white lines that clawed across her stomach, she found herself without an answer. I…I don't remember.
Esli glared at him. You shouldn't ask nosy questions!
Unlike you, I have to! he shot back.
Esli glowered at him.
What were they talking about? Nadine glanced between them, eyes narrowing. Esli didn't look at her as she said, Report here first thing in the morning. The Vizier will oversee your training.
Esli—Nadine stopped, uncertain what she wanted to ask. She thought of the way Telm and Esli seemed to communicate underneath and between their words, a hidden meaning in every sentence. Her stomach twisted. Once, when they were younger, she had thought she and Esli might have been that close. But that had been when Nyla was around, and…
She frowned at the hole in her memory. Someone else had been around, someone who had twined her and Esli closer, had made them almost sisters. She could feel it, just as she felt her parents' histories in the shattered shells of the Dark Seas. Her mind grasped, fumbling through the perpetual current of memory that never stops, only circles and circles one's soul, dizzying and powerful.
Nothing. The memory eluded her, a ship blown further out to sea than she could reach. Panic gripped her. There were already so many uncertainties in this world—she didn't want more of them! Turning around so Esli couldn't see the fear in her face, Nadine set out for home. ***
Home was a humble shack of driftwood. Nothing differentiated it from all the others in the tribe other than the lone red flower blossoming by its door—Rurriel's gift. She knelt down and stroked its petals, reminded of the softness of his lips against her cheek. What might have been—
She clamped down on the thought, thrusting it away from her. Too much. Too much grief. She sucked in a breath, relished the salty tang of sea. Gulping it down, she closed her eyes and waited for it to cleanse her, to relieve her of the anguish twisting through her veins. Her body felt like it was burning from the inside out, her scales as though they would crack into pieces like seashells.
She dove through her doorway, landing on the sand-floor with a thud. Curling into a ball, she braced herself as her tail quivered and flexed, her muscles tight and flaming. For humans, sorrow hollows us out. For the Mer, it fills them with fire that burns again and again, agony that forgives their lack of tears.
Nadine sat there shuddering and shedding for a long time, until the anguish slithered into exhaustion and finally slipped into sleep. And dreams. ***
The rebel held Rurriel's head in its hands, his blood staining the sea before bubbling into foam. His body melted until all that was left was the crimson stain on the rebel's hands. The Mer looked up, eyes flaring. You're next, she said.
Nadine backed away, sword slipping from her grasp. I cannot kill you. How can you—
Pain. Nadine looked down. A dagger stuck out of her side, hilt winking in the sun-soaked sea. Darkness edged her vision, but she didn't need to look up to know her killer had been a child—a child with flashing amber eyes and chapped lips. ***
She woke up choking on horror and fear, tongue curled in her mouth to keep the vomit at bay. Rubbing her scales and glancing out her window into the darkness, she tried to banish the dream from her thoughts. But it haunted her still, poking and prodding her in the deepest places.
Had Rurriel been killed because he refused to fight a child?
Would she be forced to kill a child?
Nadine circled her hut, dragging herself through the sand. The grains grated against her scales, rubbing them sore. Was this how desperate they had become, when they killed their own future? Was this how things were supposed to get better? The royalists had won the war—it had been the rebels who slaughtered her village, who were supposed to be the villains. And yet, it was the queen's army who hoarded the Dome and decided who received rations. It was the queen's army who focussed more on their hatred of the humans than the needs of their own people.
Nadine's fingers dug into the sand. It was the humans who murdered their children, the humans who were the scum of the earth. It wasn't supposed to be this way—the Mer were supposed to be better than this.
Honour is the act of serving others no matter what pain it brings to you. Honour is what makes a man. Her father's words, once accompanied by tickles and laughter.
Or woman, her mother added.
Honour is what makes a hero.
Nadine glanced at her coral pink scales—the colour of a flower, of a delicacy. Of something that had to fight to survive. She wondered if she could ever be brave enough to live with honour—and accept its cost.