This is a story about mermaids. Right now this girl, Princess Nichovia (Niko, if you matter) doesn't know she is looking for them, but she is. She is even now as she takes off into the night on her dragon, gripping its neck tight as they whip over the last castle tower. Some people in Jezden say it's unnatural for a princess to ride a dragon, but this doesn't result in much, since they forgot to inform the dragons.

Niko's is a fine black hunting dragon. She likes him because when she looks at him, it's like he just came from her in another life. She knew he was hers when she first saw him. Like somewhere else, maybe she spoke dragon and he spoke human. Or not. But it's like this: first time they met, it was while a bunch of guards were attempting to tie a reign onto him without him breaking it. They never quite made it past the attempt stage. Earlier that same night, Neko's mother had set a comb to Neko's hair, just to have it split in half. In Neko's head, these events had been occuring simultaneously for years. She and the dragon were such that they belonged to each other.

But the best part was that technically, they didn't. He wasn't even hers. She'd stolen him from the King's Head Guard a few moons back, along with a kiss from one of the Apprentice Guards (the one standing alone—with the dragontooth necklace and quiet eyes). Of course by the time the Head Guard finally recognized his steed, Niko had already trained its ears so that they were deaf to every call, save hers. The Head Guard, clueless, would holler commands at it till he lost his voice, while Niko watched from the top of the wall, laughing her head off. Then at last she'd give a whistle and in a dark gleaming rush, her beast would come to her side. Then she'd toss her rope-seat onto him and make it nice and knotted and hoist herself on. Once mounted, she'd look at the Head Guard, just standing there fuming, and make some comment—Perhaps a little too much on the forest cologne?—before soaring off high into the air on the beast's back, laughing.

Now Niko pulled tight on the dragon's reigns so that it slowed down a bit and she could watch the other villagers down below in the street, heading back home from The Tipsy Merking. It got dark out early these days, which meant most of the kingdom had already been tucked away in bed for hours. Still for every body that says it's time for bed there's another that says it's time to start hitting the clubs, so you can understand why there were quite a lot of people only just heading back. Neko followed along as she watched from above. She liked gliding in the high of the autumn night, when the air was all crisp and full of drunklike colors, but the best part was feeling all the villagers down below look up at her, and seeing the children point and admire. And of course she knew she had to look like something, way up above them, high up on her dragon. But it was also surprisingly fun to watch them too, all funny and little-looking and silly on wine. Sometimes it was even more fun watching them, when they were so drunk they didn't even realize she was there, and she then he felt all giddy and thief-like, like she was even stealing something in watching them.

Like right now, she was having so much fun being high-up and secret, and getting to watch the commoners below be all ridiculous. She couldn't help but grin as she watched—they really were an excellent set of drunks—as they staggered and stumbled and tripped over each other's tired, sea-worn feet and grabbed at the older men's beards to get back up, and then sang a line or two loud to the stars, before colliding right into each other. She turned to watch as a bunch of ragged-looking boys chased each other along the edge of the water with their lips a strange bright shade from all that sweet nectar wine and two big-bellied women as they leaned back in laughter—she kept hoping they'd laugh so hard they'd just fall over.

Her eye caught on a burly, red-cheeked man who had his arms looped around two plump women. Together they all moved as one stumbling unit, belting in their loud, awful best to some song. After a little bit Niko recognized the familiar tune of the chorus and couldn't resist singing along to the old favorite about a group of mischevious water-sprites: "O come and see, Cindy! We've made your family pretty! A bearded Ma, a tail on Pa, and horns on Li-ittle Jimmy!" She kind of wanted one of them to look up and see him singing along, but then that would also take away the dark, pleasant feeling she got from watching. She watched as a diagonally-inclined man tripped into his wife, and then tried to explain himself—But I've only had six goblets of wine, and that's not enough to get even an oyster babe drunk, by Puck!—his chubby lips declared. Niko was also was trying to think up some lie, something nice-sounding to toss to her mother about why she hadn't been home for supper. She'd been gambling in the tavern, which her mother probably knew, but still, she'd steer her through a hundred of her lies before admitting it.

As they drew nearer to the castle, Niko could make out small lights glinting in the dark—late-night servant fires from the far right tower—the servants' quarters—making the crooked old turret glow from inside. As she pulled in closer, she could make out the turret now and even hear tiny bits of laughter from inside and see through a window as two little maid-girls ran around, hiding behind their older sister so as not to be caught by their mother and enchanted by one of the royal magician's recipes into slumber, or worse, given a good soaping.

Inside the castle were six levels total—but there were so many staircases and passages spilling into each other it often felt like there were several additional levels. Now Niko was outside the tower that was the royal chambers. Through the window she could see her mother combing her hair as she hummed a sleepy, haunting tune which she probably thought she'd make up, but probably just stole from a maid.

Niko looked into her room. It was dark. So was her parents' chamber. Niko was a little suspicious, but then who knew? Maybe her mother really was asleep. She flew the dragon inside—he was slender enough to fit in, and anyways, she liked when he slept in her chambers instead of having to tie him up—it allowed for a better esape plan too, if her mother did appear—and they landed on the carpet. Suddenly, a hand shot out of the dark and grabbed the reigns and before Niko could react, an oil candle was lit, sending the room into brightness, and there was Niko's mother, frowning at her.

Instead of looking at her, Niko looked around at the room. After a moment of apparent confusion she said, "Oops—wrong castle. Um, lovely home though. Yes, well carry on," and she yanked at the reigns so that she could fly away. Unfortunately her mother's grip was stronger.

"Nice try," she said, and with a subtle gesture of her head, Mazina came out of the shadows to take Niko down. Mazina made to put her in her bed, but Niko would not stand that. "My window-seat," she said and Mazina obeyed. Her mother didn't argue, but instead came over and stood over Niko. Her mother wasn't saying anything, so Niko pulled out some crab apples out of her pocket and started juggling them.

Her mother grabbed at them, making them fall. In response Niko pulled out her dagger and started sharpening it. She hated not doing something wth her hands.

However, this only seemed to further aggravate her mother. "Nichovia Lysabell, where have you been? Your supper has been waiting for you in the dining hall all night."

"Aw, how considerate of it," Niko said with an innocent smile.

"Do you not remember what I said to you before?" her mother said, her tone rising. "I told you I wanted you home for a private supper with your father."

"Please don't shout," Niko said, looking up at her mother. "My loyal steed said he'd start crying if you did." Her mother followed her gaze out the window, only to see her dragon soaring around ecstatically, chasing bats. Niko grinned, but her mother didn't seem to find this very amusung.

"Niko, where were you after your archery lesson?"

"Why, heading back from my archery lesson, of course."

"And after that, at supper? Do not tell me you were gambling at that tavern again."

All right then. She wouldn't. Just then Niko noticed some tea on the stand next to the chair. Her mother and Mazina had probably been drinking it while they were waiting for her to come back. She poured herself some.

"Were you, Niko?"

Niko looked away. She always forgot how much intimidating her mother's eyes became when she was in a bad mood. She decided not to answer. Instead, she took a long sip from her goblet and put up a finger to say fine, just give me a second. Then she pulled the goblet away from her lips and gave out a slow sigh, as if she'd given up. "Fine, all right," she said. "If you really want to know—" All of a sudden she got a shocked expression on her face and looked at the drink in her hand with horror. Her mother watched, impassive, as she pushed the goblet onto the table and then collapsed backward onto the window-seat cushion and started writhing and shaking, and then reaching her hand out dramatically into the air, cried, "alas, poison!" and then softer, "not my time," and finally in a very soft breath, "all those pranks… no one will ever know" and then dropped her hand to the seat and became motionless. Her mother just kept staring, waiting, but she didn't nudge. "Niko, get up." Not the slightest bit of movement. "Niko." Now she leaned forward and poked her daughter.

Although the rest of her body remained still, Niko's hand rose up and she pointed her dagger at her. "That's child abuse, that is," she said and then sat up pleasantly. "Sorry about that," she said. "Raspberry seed…caught in my throat. Ve-ery crafty little things," she said, narrowing his eyes suspiciously as if he were speaking of a highly cunning enemy. Then she leaned back cheerfully and casually drained the rest of her drink.

Her mother was still staring at her with that unyielding look on her face, although unless she imagined it—which she easily could have—it had gentled a bit. "Now did you actually think that was going to work, Niko?" she asked.

Was it silly to nod like a little kid? "Can't help but hope, right?" she grinned, helping herself to more cake. Then she added, "And well, it certainly worked on the other mothers."

"The other mothers?"

This was too much fun. "You know, my other mothers," she said casually. And anyone who didn't know her well enough might actually think she was serious. "But I'll have you know I like you best." She grinned and leaned in, whispering, "You put brandy in your raspberry tea."

Her mother sighed and sat down at the table, right across from her. When she spoke again, her tone was softer, but still harsh. "So there is no way you were gambling in the tavern earlier this evening and are now lying to me about it?" she asked knowingly.

"My, how your imagination travels tonight, Mother."

She breathed out in frustration. "Niko, do you ever think—"

"And there you are, dreaming again," she said with a clever smile. Just then, in brilliant timing, her father entered the room, unsteady and drunk as ever.

"I thought I uh—heard voices so I—"

"Honey," his mother barked, "there's a very rude girl in your castle right now." Now did she really think that was going to work?

His father looked around confusedly and mumbled drunkenly, "A girl in our—?"

But before his mother could respond, Niko took advantage of his father's confusion and cried, "An intruder you say?" And pointing her dagger into the air, she cried, "I'll get them!" And before her mother could stop her, she got into her apple-cart next to the window-seat and pushed off. Then suddenly she stopped. "Best to check the wine cellar first!" And grinning, she turned it in the other direction and then headed for the other door, in the direction of the kitchens.

She hadn't gotten very far when mother stepped in front of her. "All right, young woman. Enough," she said. Right away, Niko could tell by her eyes she had victory. "Go to bed," she said, steering the cart in the direction of the bed. "And I don't want to hear another peep out of you." Niko grinned and reached her hands up as Mazina picked her up and placed her in bed; somehow she'd actually managed to escape without a punishment, she thought as she watched her parents leave.

Through her window, she could see the stars. So many of them. For some reason, she couldn't looking at them without thinking of the sea right below. And suddenly, she had a longing to look out at it. She looked over. Mazina was tending to the fire. "Mazina, take me to the balcony."

Mazina looked at her sharply.

Niko stared back. "Do as I say." Mazina came over and picked her up.

"You smell funny," Niko said as Mazina carried her over. "Huh, like you've actually bathed. What, you seeing some dashing servantman later or something?"

"Don't be ridiculous," Mazina said in her rich low voice, with just the slightest hint that she was from somewhere else. She set her down outside in the chair by the starcharts.

"Course not. Let's see, a guard then? The court jester? Wait, don't tell me—the court magician?" Niko grinned. "Got to be honest though, do not understand the attraction to long white beards."

"Oh, but cutting them off makes for such nice break-up revenge," Mazina said, sitting down in the other chair. Ha nice, Niko thought to herself. She was about to say something back, but then instead, found herself looking out at the sea.

"How far away is the nearest land again?" she said. She turned to Mazina. "Give me the distance you'd see on a map." The Jezden Sea was enormous, but some day Niko planned on traveling across it all. One day.

"About seven-hundred miles. Day's journey."

That would be the first stop on her journey. Mysticallis.

"You've been there before, right? What was it like?"

Mazina looked out at the sea. There was something always kind of half ridiculous about her in the moonlight, the way her eyes and hair were so dark. Half ridiculous, half beautiful. She looked at Niko. "Like I never want to go back."

"Why?"

"Things about it," she said in that annoyingly vague way of hers.

"Well I've heard good things, so I'm going there," Niko said. But that's just the first stop. To get real supplies. Then I'm not going to stop for miles and miles."

"But how are you going to get around?" Mazina asked.

"By ship, how else?" Niko said, taking a sip of her drink.

Mazina continued to look at her.

Niko swallowed, then said, "Well, hire someone, of course. Or my dragon will carry me. Nobody would mess with me if I was on his back." But hearing it aloud, she suddenly realized how dumb this sounded and to make up for it she quickly added, "Besides, even crawling around, I'll still be freer than you'll ever be."

Mazina smiled. "That is true." Niko looked away, at the water. As she did she suddenly had a very clear image of herself crawling off the ship, grasping handfulls of sand as she tried to lug her body forward. Because the truth was she didn't know how she'd get around without Mazina or her mother or other servants carrying her around. But then it was stupid to worry about that just yet.

She turned to Mazina. "Tell me a story."

"No, it's late," Mazina said, getting up.

"Quite late. Such an inappropriate time for the rest of the castle to wake up. Tell me one or I'll start screaming at the top of my lungs—don't think I won't."

Mazina looked at her, then sat back down. Maybe she could see the intense need in her eyes. How looking at the sea had brought out this strange...fear. And hope. Because then she said very softly, "Okay...okay. But I'm only starting one."

"And make it about the sea."

Mazina looked out into the night. "I don't know any."

"Then make it up." Mazina looked at her. Niko stared back. "Just take a story and put water in it or something."

Mazina looked out at the water for a few moments. Niko counted to five, then looked at her. Mazina looked at her, then threw a pebble out into the water.

Niko couldn't believe it. She was still refusing? "You know, if I wanted—"

"There was once a prince who loved a mermaid." Bet he dies, Niko thought as she leaned forward, eager for more.

To be continued….